Big business, legislators pushed for stiff sentences

Prison operators say they didn’t write tough-on-crime bills, but they belonged to group that did.

PROFIT, POLITICS, PAIN - Huge profits and sweet setups for Wall Street darlings; rape, squalor, murder in lockups - and the price for Florida taxpayers

In the grip of a 1990s crime wave, Florida wanted to put people in prison and keep them there.

A then-little known conservative nonprofit was going to help.

In 1995, the American Legislative Exchange Council rolled out a criminal justice agenda of model laws — jointly created by state legislators and huge corporations — that was to swell this state’s prison population.

Florida legislators passed two of ALEC’s key measures: Truth in Sentencing, which requires inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences, and the Three Strikes law requiring minimum mandatory sentences.

Florida prison operators GEO Group Inc. and Corrections Corporation of America insist they didn’t have a hand in writing ALEC’s stiff sentence proposals, which ultimately created a need for more private lockups.

But ALEC did. And the prison firms were either high profile members of ALEC, provided it with substantial money, or both.

Several months after refusing to respond to written questions about its relationship with ALEC, GEO now denies ever being a member but acknowledges it gave ALEC no more than $33,000 between 1999 and 2004. ALEC first described GEO as a former member consistent with other published accounts, but ALEC now says it is unsure if GEO was a member. And, although GEO says it did not fund ALEC before 1999, a 1998 ALEC document lists Wackenhut Corrections (GEO) as a “trustee” level “sponsor” of its annual meeting.

As for CCA, it is undisputed that it was both an ALEC member and sponsor. Two senior CCA executives sat on ALEC’s criminal justice task force and one of them co-chaired the panel in 1998.

“It is CCA’s longstanding policy not to draft, lobby for or in any way promote policies that determine the basis for an individual’s incarceration or detention,” said CCA spokesman Steve Owen in a written statement.

“They don’t call it lobbying; they call it providing information,” counters Judith Greene, director of Justice Strategies Inc., a New York research and advocacy group. “ALEC was their vehicle.”

The task force efforts were wildly successful: ALEC’s 1995 Scorecard counts Florida’s enactment of Truth in Sentencing among its triumphs; some version of the law was passed in 24 other states that year.

In 1994, then-state Sens. Charlie Crist and Jim Scott, both Republicans, were among multiple co-hosts of ALEC’s annual convention held in Tampa.

The following year, as ALEC’s criminal task force drafted model laws making criminals serve 85 percent of their sentences, Crist sponsored the Florida bill that would do just that. As Senate president, Scott hailed it as the legislature’s No. 1 priority. Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles, a featured speaker at the ALEC convention, signed it into law.

State Sen. John Thrasher was ALEC’s Legislator the Year in 1998; in 1999, the then-House speaker led a successful charge to adopt ALEC’s Three Strikes law.

Florida was especially receptive to the get-tough-on-crime ideas. Crowding was forcing the early release of thousands of Florida prisoners. Violent felons could serve just one-third of their sentences. And the state was in the middle of a crime wave. By one estimate, Florida in 1996 had the highest rate of violent crime in the nation.

Some in Tallahassee optimistically predicted no more than about 400 additional prison beds would be needed to accommodate lengthy ALEC-inspired sentences.

They missed the mark by tens of thousands of prisoners and hundreds of millions of dollars.

The inmate count grew by 139 percent between 1990 and 2011, and now stands at about 100,000.

The state prison budget ballooned with the population. This year, it’s expected to top $2.2 billion, up 57 percent from roughly $1.6 billion in 2001.

In 1995, the year Florida passed one of the first new sentencing laws, three private prisons opened. They housed roughly 3,500 inmates. Since then, the state has opened four more privately run prisons. Approximately 10,000 Florida inmates — about one in 10 — are now held in the lockups.

Although crime is at a 42-year low, the state prison population hasn’t experienced a similarly dramatic drop, partly because ALEC-inspired sentences keep inmates longer.

Longer prison sentences are one reason crime has dropped, according to many Florida sheriffs. But there’s little doubt the sentencing laws have also grown the need for prison space.

And while GEO and CCA may not have had a direct hand in creating such laws, the publicly traded companies concede that profits depend on tough drug and immigration legislation.

CCA wrote in Securities and Exchange Commission filings this year that its continued growth hinged in part on sentencing patterns. Risk factors affecting company profits included lower minimum sentences for non-violent crimes.

GEO expressed other concerns. “Immigration reform laws … could materially adversely impact us,” the company wrote. Further, “Any changes with respect to the decriminalization of drugs and controlled substances could affect the number of persons arrested … potentially reducing demand for correctional facilities.”

It was a point driven home in August, when Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer pursue mandatory sentences for some nonviolent drug offenders.

Over the next few days, GEO shares nosedived by $2.76 to around $32.

ALEC disbanded the task force that had championed stiffer sentencing. It now promotes spending less taxpayer money on prisons and more on prison alternatives, such as electronic monitoring.

Thrasher chaired the Senate Rules Committee in 2012, which wrote a bill handing over control of most South Florida prisons to private companies. The bill failed on the Senate floor by a single vote.

The prison companies quit ALEC.

But CCA recently purchased a firm that specializes in prison alternatives. GEO bought an electronic moinitoring firm. And both seem poised to benefit from ALEC’s new efforts.

Staff researchers Niels Heimeriks and Michelle Quigley contributed to this story.

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