Oh. What a Tangled Web . . .
The most recent salvo in the Right’s [totally imaginary] War on Women is a bill that landed on Gov. Bill Haslam’s (R-TN) desk yesterday for signature. That would be SB 1391, the Pregnancy Criminalization Law. Unless the governor vetoes it, Tennessee will become the first state in the nation with a law requiring criminal prosecution of pregnant women if they harm their unborn children by taking illegal drugs.
Miscarriages, stillbirths, and infants born with birth defects would be grounds for police investigation and charges that could put the mother behind bars for up to 15 years.
Critics of the bill, and there are many, argue that this type of law scares at risk mothers away from pre-natal care and drug treatment and ends up costing states more for incarceration and disrupted families than they would spend on effective pre-natal support and access to family health services aimed at keeping families together.
It’s bad medicine and it’s spectacularly sloppy, mean-spirited law as the American Civil Liberties Union pointed out in their petition-to-veto sent to Gov. Haslam, yesterday. The ACLU presents a laundry list of the reasons the law is unconstitutional, strewing case law as they go; cite expert opinion from the American Academy of Pediatrics and wind up labeling SB 1391 “constitutionally unsound” and “threatening to the health and well-being of Tennessee women and their families.”
So who writes laws like this?
Well, in this case, it was a Republican woman, one Terri Lynn Weaver, country singer, songwriter and state representative in the Volunteer State.
Here are some of Ms. Weaver’s thoughts on the matter:
I’ve held and rocked these babies. I just want to bawl, I just want to cry. It’s wrong. “These babies are meant to come into the world addicted to mommy’s milk, not cocaine or heroin.
Some people believe this is a very tender time when the woman’s pregnant ... but there is accountability,” she said. “These are illegal narcotics. This is something that’s criminal anyway. They choose to do this, they choose to ingest it. We’re going to give them a choice to take a misdemeanor or take drug court.
On the other hand, Commissioner Dreyzehner of the Tennessee Department of Health says:
Our data show the majority of these births involved a mother taking medicine prescribed by a health care provider. We need improved conversations between women of childbearing age and their doctors about waiting for a safer time and preventing an unintended pregnancy while the mother is in medically-necessary treatment and referral to treatment that includes addressing this for women using these powerful drugs illicitly.
Undaunted, Rep. Weaver is sticking to her guns. She says the bill isn’t designed to target these women who abuse prescription medications but will, instead, go after “the worst of the worst” or those addicted to cocaine and heroin.
And we all know who the “worst of the worst” are . . .
At any rate, I’m just getting to the really good part. Whenever I come across stories like this, the biggest question in my mind is “what motivates people like this?” This is a human being, like me, she has a family, friends, gets up everyday and tries somehow to make her world better. How can the wheels come off like this?
Here’s my theory . . .
You noticed, up near the top, I mentioned that, if Gov. Haslam signs this thing, it’ll be the first law of its kind to be enacted. Some other states—Georgia, Virginia and Utah—have taken similar laws out for a fetal-personhood test drive but stopped short of enacting them.
So, what’s different about Tennessee? Well, this might seem unrelated but stay with me . . . Tennessee is the home of Corrections Corporation of America, the largest for-profit private prison operator in the country. CCA was founded in 1983 and, in those 30 years has grown to a $1.7 billion [with-a-B] company trading on the NYSE.
Happily, for CCA the American prison population has grown by leaps and bounds.
The United States, from 1970 to 2005, increased its prison population by about 700 percent, according to statistics gathered by the ACLU.
The majority of those we incarcerate in this country—and we incarcerate a quarter of the world’s prison population—have never committed a violent crime.
Business is, as they say, booming and according to a CCA investor prospectus, the future looks rosy because incarceration “creates predictable revenue streams.” The document cites demographic trends that the company says will continue to expand profits. These positive investment trends include “high recidivism”—“about 45 percent of individuals released from prison in 1999 and more than 43 percent released from prison in 2004 were returned to prison within three years.”
The prospectus invites investments by noting that one in every 100 U.S. adults is currently in prison or jail. And because the U.S. population is projected to grow by approximately 18.6 million from 2012 to 2017, “prison populations would grow by about 80,400 between 2012 and 2017, or by more than 13,000 additional per year, on average.
In keeping with their fiduciary duty to shareholders, though, CCA did warn in their 2011 Annual Report that:
The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices or through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws.
. . . any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration” could “potentially [reduce] demand for correctional facilities,” as would “mak[ing] more inmates eligible for early release based on good behavior,” the adoption of “sentencing alternatives [that] ... could put some offenders on probation” and “reductions in crime rates.
Free market, gotta love it.
Well, CCA has had its problems keeping things profitable. LOTS of problems, as documented in an excellent report entitled Banking on Bondage. I won’t get into all of that here, suffice it to say that many states are currently rethinking their relationship with for-profit prisons.
Nevertheless, $2B companies don’t lay down and die, they expand. And who’s always there to help corporations realize the American Dream? Our good friends at ALEC providing legislation to float all boats.
DiversityInc.com has a great study entitled Who Profits From the Prison Boom which contains fun facts like:
One of ALEC’s main task forces is the Public Safety and Elections Task Force (formerly known as Criminal Justice and Homeland Security), which oversees the drafting of model bills that often serve as the basis for criminal-justice legislation. For years, the criminal-justice task force was co-chaired by high-ranking CCA executives.
“The busiest Task Force is Criminal Justice which had 199 bills introduced. The anti-crime legislation with the most enactments was the Truth in Sentencing Act (inmates serve at least 85 percent of their sentence) which became law in 25 states.”
ALEC’s “Habitual Offender/Three Strikes” bills (life imprisonment for a third violent felony) passed in 11 states.
In large part because of these laws, the country’s prison population has ballooned from 500,000 in 1980 to 2.3 million in 2009, greater than that of any other nation in the world. Including the number of people on probation and parole in this country, more than 7 million people—one out of every 31—lives under the control of the U.S. criminal-justice system, and 60 percent of them are from traditionally underrepresented groups, such as Blacks and Latinos.
So, ALEC “models” the laws that keep prisons full for CCA, in turn, CCA lavishly lobbies state representatives to get such laws on the books.
In fact—oh wouldn’t you know it—CCA contributed to Rep. Weaver’s campaign and her Senate counterpart, Sen. Reginald Tate? is an ALEC Tax and Fiscal Policy Task Force Member.
CCA must consider that money well -spent. Here’s Rep. Weaver coming up with a brand new class of prisoners, not only that, everyone knows women and kids make for the most profitable inmates—they don’t eat a lot and they’re less trouble.
Which makes it a lot easier to understand this new, heretofore, mysterious criminal justice development:
The Department of Justice issued new guidance Wednesday aimed at curbing harsh, discriminatory over-punishment of school discipline violations.
Kids are arrested for wearing the wrong color socks and starting food fights.
Schools seeking to discipline students call the police, and police policy was to arrest all children referred to the agency
In Texas, another DOJ lawsuit highlighted one county’s policy of filing automatic criminal charges against students for truancy.
And in Florida, Broward County agreed in November to reform its policy after a spate of arrests for rule violations as minor as starting a food fight.
Research suggests almost half of all black males are arrested by age 23.
More than half of youths are detained for offenses that do not threaten public safety. Data collected this summer by the National Juvenile Justice Network and Texas Public Policy Foundation found that, as of 2010, “almost 60 percent of confined youth in the US (41,877) were still detained and imprisoned for offenses that do not pose substantial threats to public safety.
As the ACLU concluded in their report Banking on Bondage:
In America, our criminal justice system should keep us safe, operate fairly, and be cost-effective. Mass incarceration, however, deprives record numbers of individuals of their liberty, has at best a minimal effect on public safety, and cripples state budgets.
Meanwhile, the private prison industry rakes in profits by obtaining government money in increasing amounts, by depriving Americans of liberty in ever greater numbers, and potentially by cutting corners at the expense of public safety and prison security.