Eric Holder’s Proposal Could Shift the Focus of the Prison Industrial Complex

The attorney general's sentencing plan could reduce the amount of nonviolent drug offenders who are incarcerated. 

Posted: 08/20/2013 05:06 PM EDT

With 2.2 million people behind bars, the U.S. incarceration binge could soon slow its intake of African-American men if Attorney General Eric Holder’s “smart on crime” initiative is implemented. 

The prison industrial complex (PIC), which has long racked up on profits by maintaining high population rates, will feel a financial pinch.

Under Holder’s sentencing plan, low-level, non-violent drug offenders would no longer be charged with “draconian mandatory minimum sentences." Holder’s plan does not need congressional approval. But on Aug. 1, a group of senators introduced Smarter Sentencing Act to address this issue.

Of Americans incarcerated for nonviolent drug offenses, two-thirds are people of color. And over the last two decades, African-Americans have constituted at least 80 percent of those charged with crack-cocaine offenses. 

Incarceration for non-violent crimes, long sentences for small quantities of illegal drugs and minimum sentencing policies have served to profit the prison industrial complex while disproportionately incarcerating African-Americans. The nation’s largest private prison company, Corrections Corporation of America, has thrived financially from such policies.

The Corrections Corporation of America reported in its annual filing that total revenue from 2011 was at $1,356.7 million, and it increased to $1,395.2 million in 2012. But in the report, the company said policies that lessen the sentences of non-violent crimes with respect to drugs and controlled substances would adversely affect them.

If Holder’s initiative is successful, the revenue Corrections Corporation of America would receive per inmate per day could scale back. During the last quarter, the company reported that it received $41.61 per day per inmate.

“The less people you funnel into prisons, the harder time the PIC will have operating, but it would be a bit naïve for the general public to assume that this industry would be heavily impacted by this policy,” Glenn Martin, director  at The Fortune Society, Inc., told BET.comThe Fortune Society is a non-profit organization that helps former inmates to reenter and successfully integrate into their communities.

More than 60 percent of people who come out of prison go back within three years, Martin said.  

In 2012, Corrections Corporation of America launched a directive stating that any prison it buys under the agreement must house at least 1,000 beds with a guaranteed inmate occupancy rate of at least 90 percent. Although the public understands that the “tough on crime” approach has failed, Martin said the prison industrial complex has already recognized this rising tide and has latched on to immigration as the next feeder for their system. 

“They’ve already started thinking about their next source of income and they are heavily lobbying for very tough immigration policies to be put in place,” he said. “What we really need is for Congress to recognize that mandatory minimum sentencing doesn’t work and to pass sweeping legislation to give judges back discretion.”

Holder’s legislation would also work to decrease the disparity between crack and powder cocaine offenses by allowing certain inmates to petition for sentence reductions under the Fair Sentencing Act.

“If you couple this with the pronouncement on stop and frisk, the increase in re-entry approaches and the fact that Eric Holder has a federal interagency Reentry Council, it really does move us forward toward a tipping point,” Martin said. 

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(Photo:  Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

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