Sometimes bad things happen to good people

My boss would say “that’s outrageous.” I almost drove off the road.

Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me! was on the radio. Celebrity guest Seth MacFarlane was playing the Not My Job segment.

Host Peter Sagal asks the question: “Pasadena, like many cities in southern California, maintains a special jail for wealthier inmates who can pay to serve their time. And when the pay to stay jail was opened in the 90s, it needed an advertising campaign. What was the slogan picked at that time to sell that jail? Was it A, quote, bad things happen to good people? B: you got caught, now get comfortable? Or C: here, we call it doing easy time?”

That’s right, folks. Apparently good people don’t actually commit crimes. Bad things just happen to them.

That ad campaign says a lot about how we view the more than 2.3 million people in the United States who are living behind bars. It also helps explain why we seem content to cede, at no small cost to taxpayers, the task of incarceration to private prison corporations.

Mass incarceration has become a defining feature of the United States. Just check out this nifty ACLU infographic illustrating how between 1970 and 2005 the US population has grown by just 40% , while the US prison population has grown by a whopping 700%. Among those imprisoned are nearly 400,000 people held every year awaiting deportation in a web of more than 300 jails and prisons around the country who provide contract bed space to the US Department of Homeland Security.

Last year NPR reporter Laura Sullivan broke a story that drew the connection between private prison lobbyists and the drafter of the notorious Arizona immigration law, SB 1070 . A new report by PICO National Network and Public Campaign takes an even closer look at the relationship between America’s highly profitable private prison industry and the policies that have accounted for exploding prison populations, even in the face of historically low levels of violent crime.  According to the report, the total prison population has increased by 209%. The number of people incarcerated in private prisons has skyrocketed by 1664%. Private prison lobbyists had a hand in drafting everything from three-strikes-and-you’re-out to mandatory minimum sentences and “truth in sentencing” laws, all of which have blown prison populations through the roof.

I just returned from a convening of the US Human Rights Fund in Philadelphia, where Kim McGill of South Central LA’s Youth Justice Coalition told us that while 1 in 100 kids in her neighborhood will graduate from college, nearly all of them will have some encounter with the juvenile justice system. Hard to believe there are so many bad kids out there.

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