Because of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School, I have heard many people call for stiffer prison sentences for people who commit offenses while armed with a gun and for greater action in the area of mental health. The latter seems to take the form of conferring upon government officials greater discretion to hold someone for a period of time to monitor the person’s behavior and determine whether the person should be detained longer.
Both of these parts of a solution to gun violence feed into a problem few people mention. Private corporations have become big players in our penal system.
Here is a dynamic difficult to avoid: if a corporation makes more money from more people incarcerated in prisons, that corporation will work to put more people into prisons.
Amongst the biggest or most munificent lobbyists against laws to legalize marijuana are these corporations, as well as unions for prison guards. Mandatory sentences for offenses are the things these entities love. Yes—put people behind bars! That has been a very successful way in which to address crime rates and, ahem, the War on Drugs.
My colleague Paul Ogden blogged yesterday about civil forfeiture’s place in the good fortune of the "winners" of the War on Drugs. This is an infrequent occurrence: I agree with Paul on this point. Civil forfeiture laws are terrible. We should repeal them. Unfortunately, lobbyists for the corporations will be there to tell your representative why she or he should vote against any such repeal because repeal would hurt that lobbyist’s corporate employer.
The Framers did not view corporations as endowed with the rights of human beings. The Framers’ most recent involvement with corporations had been the British East India Company. The colonists famously threw a "party," and the corporation’s goods, into Boston Harbor. I doubt the Framer would have viewed favorably the way in which the corporate entity has acquired power—and rights!
If law enforcement officers are given greater discretion as to detention of "suspicious" persons, abuses will occur. If we add the corporate profit element, more people will be incarcerated, and the three largest penal corporations in the country will enjoy profits greater than the seven billion dollars they enjoyed last year.
There are measures we can take to address what occurred at Sandy Hook. Longer sentences—Lanza, an eventual suicide, would have been deterred by a long sentence?—and greater law enforcement discretion to incarcerate are not amongst those measures.
Be careful what you wish for.