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ALEC in the House: Corporate Bias in Criminal Justice Legislation

The past twenty years have marked a dramatic shift to more harsh criminal justice policies. While it is common knowledge that politicians beat the "tough on crime" drum to win elections, one has to wonder where they find the time to draft the reams of draconian legislation passed in recent years. Wonder no more.

Hundreds of remarkably similar pieces of criminal justice legislation were introduced in cookie-cutter fashion in states throughout the country in the mid-1990's. Their origin can be clearly traced to the influence and work of one conservative organization: the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

ALEC is a Washington, D.C.-based public policy organization that supports conservative legislators. Launched in 1973 by Paul Weyrich (a founder of the ultra-conservative Heritage Foundation), ALEC exemplifies the cozy relationship between big business and politicians that so often results in pro-business, anti-human legislation.

With over 40 percent of state legislators as members, ALEC represents a formidable force in state capitols across the country. Of the more than 6,000 state legislators in the United States, approximately 2,500 are members of ALEC, including scores who hold key leadership positions. About 70% of these legislators are Republicans; the remainder are primarily conservative Democrats from the Southern and Western states.

A chief function of the Council is to develop "model" legislative proposals that advance corporate-friendly principles _ such as cutting government budgets, decreasing government regulatory authority, and privatizing government services. For example, this year in Oklahoma, a state with strong ALEC ties, the legislature put a "right-to-work" initiative on the ballot, and debated the elimination of its income tax. Both proposals were promoted as being essential in order to compete with it's low tax, low wage neighbor _ Texas. Here we clearly have a case of "we're more pro-corporate than you."

This bending over for corporate interests might be amusing if it were not so effective. In 1995_96, ALEC's model legislation resulted in 1,647 bills, including 365 that became law (a 22 percent success rate). By 1999, introduction of bills based on ALEC models increased 34 percent, to 2,208. Of the ALEC bills introduced that year, 322 were enacted into law (a success rate of less than fifteen per cent). Even though ALEC's ability to get bills passed has recently slipped, the sheer number of bills that continue to be introduced and pushed by legislators throughout the country guarantees an increasing corporate presence in the policy-making process. And, among ALEC's wide-ranging conservative interests, criminal justice has been a core piece of its agenda.

Naturally, Big Business is only too happy to foot the bill for much of ALEC's operating budget. In 1992, 70 percent of ALEC's $3.7 million budget came from corporations. By 1998, the organization's budget had grown to more than $6 million, again with nearly 70 percent coming from corporate donations.

Prominent among ALEC's corporate backers are several major stakeholders in prison privatization, including Corrections Corporation of America (CCA); Wackenhut Corrections; and Sodexho Marriott Services, a subsidiary of French multinational Sodexho Alliance (which, until last year, was a major stockholder in CCA, and now owns the former CCA prisons in the United Kingdom and Australia). CCA, the largest private prison corporation in the U.S., made the President's List for contributions to ALEC's 1999 States & Nation Policy Summit, a conference which Sodexho Marriott and Wackenhut also helped sponsor.

Corporations have lavishly supported the work of ALEC, not simply for charitable reasons, but in order to ensure their direct participation in crafting pro-corporate legislation. Indeed, representatives from the corporate sector co-chair the task forces that develop ALEC's model legislation. CCA has long held a co-chair position on the Criminal Justice Task Force, as has the National Association of Bail Insurance Companies.

These corporate interests have helped make tough criminal justice legislation a specialty of ALEC. In its 1995 Model Legislation Scorecard the organization claimed, "The busiest Task Force was Criminal Justice, which had 199 bills introduced." The report of the Criminal Justice Task Force states: "The Criminal Justice Task Force is dedicated to developing model policies that reduce both violent and property crimes in our cities and neighborhoods in an efficient, fiscally conservative manner. ALEC's Truth-in-Sentencing Act and Three-Strikes-You're-Out Act have been the most effective bills supported by the Task Force. At least one of these model bills has been enacted in half of the states in the country. The Task Force continues to explore cost-effective methods for states to manage their criminal justice systems."

According to October 2001 press releases, the Criminal Justice Task Force is currently offering model legislation such as the "Third Theft Felony Act" (which transforms a third conviction for minor theft into a felony), and the "Child Abuse Investigation Reform Act" (which removes the authority of state child protective services agencies to investigate alleged child abuse, and gives this responsibility to law enforcement agencies).

The drafting of model legislationwhich permits legislators in multiple states to introduce similar legislation without going to the trouble of crafting these bills independently and on their ownis bad enough; but that's not all. ALEC also appears to be involved in well-coordinated efforts to completely overhaul criminal justice policies in certain target states. A case in point is Pennsylvania, and it's worth a look at what happened there, now that the state's Governor, Tom Ridge, has been appointed head of "Homeland Security."

Like many other states, Pennsylvania went on a wild prison-building spree during the last two decades, completing, on average, one new prison per year during the 20 years between 1980 and 2000. Twelve new prisons opened under Governor Ridge alone. With only a few small juvenile facilities run by Cornell Corrections and one private prison run by Wackenhut, corporate-operated prisons, so far, have failed to gain much more than a toehold in Pennsylvania's punishment industry. Yet Pennsylvania has been crucial to the growth of the prison-industrial complex _ far beyond just a few private multi-million dollar cages.

In the mid-1990's, ALEC used Pennsylvania as the staging ground for its corporate-backed criminal justice agenda. It was also in Pennsylvania that ALEC dealt a death blow to the organized forces left-of-Bill Clinton who were then attempting to save us from the 1994 Crime Act (which provided more federal money to states to subsidize more prison-building). Here's the sad story in a nutshell:

In the early 1990's, when the NRA, the Heritage Foundation, ALEC and their poster boy William Barr (former Attorney General under the first George Bush) were busy cooking up more ways to put more people behind more bars for more profit, a Washington, DC-based group of liberal reformers were also hard at work organizing state politicians and criminal justice bureaucrats. The reformers launched the Campaign for Effective Crime Policy, and circulated a petition, "A Call For A Rational Debate On Crime Policy", which would ultimately receive endorsement from over 1,100 elected officials and criminal justice professionals nationwide. The Campaign for Effective Crime Policy was designed, obviously, to counter the conservative onslaught.

Funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation, and operated from the office of The Sentencing Project in Washington, DC, the Campaign for Effective Crime Policy first caught fire in 1992 at a conference organized by Attorney General Barr. The purpose of the conference was to shove a "more prisons" agenda down the throats of state legislators, but a dissident group of 25 state corrections commissioners showed up to express opposition to such policies. They collared reporters in the hallways, stirring up more publicity for the Campaign, and succeeded in walking out with more signatories for the "Call".

One of those dissidents, Joe Lehman, the outspoken head of Pennsylvania's prison system (now head of Washington's Department of Corrections), was tapped to chair the Campaign's advisory committee. Suffice it to say that Lehman did a good job in this role, and for a few years the Campaign fought what in hindsight appears to have been a heroic battle.

The State-Centered Project (then administered by the New York City-based Vera Institute of Justice, and funded by the Edna McConnell Clark Foundation) began operating in Pennsylvania at that time. The purpose of the Project was to provide expertise and technical support to policymakers trying to reduce unnecessary incarceration through sentencing reform, development of alternatives to incarceration, and revision of parole standards.

Along with a sizeable number of Pennsylvania corrections professionals involved in the Campaign for An Effective Crime Policy, the State-Centered Project provided, in practice if not by design, the institutional `back-up' for the Campaign's political agenda.

It should have come as no surprise when U.S. Attorney General Barr chose Pennsylvania as the site for the public unveiling of the ALEC criminal justice agenda. In January 1994 ALEC issued a press release entitled "Every Ten Minutes, A Pennsylvanian Falls Victim to a Violent Crime: Report Card on Crime Provides Ten Legislative Actions to Fighting Crime in Pennsylvania." A press event featured Barr, Sen. Steward Greenleaf, (minority chairman of the Pennsylvania Senate Judiciary Committee), and Rep. Jeff Piccola, (Republican chairman of the Pennsylvania House Judiciary Committee).

"The legislative proposals developed by ALEC for this test-run in Pennsylvania were a right-wing wet dream" says Judy Greene, former director of Vera's State-Centered Project. The proposals included such soon to be national favorites as "three strikes and you're out" legislation; mandatory prison time for `repeat offenders'; sending kids to adult court and prison; and disallowing bail for folks charged with (but not convicted of ) violent crimes.

Also standing up with this crowd was then-tough-on-crime Pennsylvania Attorney General Ernie Preate, a candidate for Governor from Lackawanna County. Preate ended up bowing out of the Governor's race to go to prison himself when he pled guilty to mail fraud involving a $20,000 campaign fundraising reporting violation. In a twist of fate even more bizarre than the usual twists in the politics-of-crime biz, Preate is currently drawing national attention back to Pennsylvania as a born-again, ex-con prison reformer. More on that later.

The Pennsylvania `Report Card' was the beginning of the end for the Pennsylvanians in the leadership of the Campaign for Effective Crime Policy, as well as the Campaign itself, which is now dead. That event, along with the adoption (by Bill Clinton, as well as the Democrats in Congress) of the worst portions of the Republicans' federal crime bill proposals, kicked what stuffing was left out of the reformers.

Back at the state level, in February 1995, Pennsylvania's Republican Governor Tom Ridge, an ALEC member, called an unprecedented special session of the legislature solely to address crime in the state. Rep. Piccola introduced eight pieces of legislation in that session, all based on ALEC's agenda; Sen. Greenleaf introduced twelve. Overall, the session saw 30 crime bills approved, many based on ALEC models, and Gov. Ridge released more than $87 million in state funding for construction of new prisons.

Today, Pennsylvania has the 10th largest state prison system in America _ with 37,000 prisoners in 25 prisons, and 3 more prisons on the drawing board. While the state's education budget has gone up 150% in the last 20 years, its prison budget has increased by 1200%. Now at $1.2 billion, corrections is Pennsylvania's third largest state budget item.

"We're throwing money at the problem now and it's not producing results. Politicians do it because they're afraid of being labeled soft-on-crime. Well, we have to get `smart on crime,'" says former federal prisoner Ernie Preate in his new role as a state lobbyist for reform groups such as The Pennsylvania Prison Society, the Pennsylvania chapter of CURE, and a religious group called Justice & Mercy. These groups, referred to by Preate as The Lobbyist Coalition Fund, paid Preate $10,000 plus travel expenses for the 2000 legislative session.

Focused on defeating the most regressive proposals and gaining the support of Preate's old Republican and ALEC member colleagues for modest steps toward state death penalty reform, the Lobbyist Coalition's agenda last year also included "free exercise of religion and prison ministry", a pet cause of Chuck Colson who, according to Preate, personally lobbied all 50 Pennsylvania state senators on this during the 2000 session. Colson and his Justice Fellowship program are favorite subjects of Preate, who found Jesus during his year stint at the federal lock-up in Duluth, Minnesota.

Confounding potential critics, Preate is a forceful and articulate speaker against building more prisonseven though that is not part of the agenda the Lobbyist Coalition Fund pays him to push. Calling the past two decades "an investment in razor wire", the former proponent of that strategy now says he's hopeful that "the current recession will force policymakers to downsize the corrections industrial complex" and encourage Governors to call for a moratorium on new prisons. We can hope that Preate, with his conservative credentials intact (albeit slightly tarnished by his incarceration) will have success in relaying his message to state governments. But if he does, it will clearly not be with the help of ALEC.

Bill DiMascio, former Pennsylvania media strategist for Vera's State-Centered Project (now defunct), is the current director of the Prison Society, an old-line Philadelphia-based charitable organization with state constitution-granted authority to send volunteers into Pennsylvania's lock-ups. According to DiMascio, there's no talk of amending the state's `lifer law', even though one in ten of the state's prison population has been sentenced under this draconian scheme. Instead, the Society is suing the state to force reform of its pardon processcommutation of sentence being the only way out of prison for lifers in Pennsylvania. "This is a conservative state with a Republican-dominated legislature and most Democrats here are as tough on crime as any Republican", said DiMascio, who also said he never heard of ALEC.

For most of it's 28-year history, ALEC has positioned itself as a conservative voice for states' rights, and a dogged opponent of big (i.e. federal) government. With the new Bush administration in the White House, and over 83 ALEC members in Congress, as well as several key Cabinet officials, ALEC may be looking at pushing for more influence at the federal level. At it's annual meeting in August, held in New York, several key federal players were active participants. These included U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, Health & Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson (an ALEC alum), and Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham.

According to the Wall Street Journal , part of the focus of this year's annual meeting was a new ALEC report that claims states have set themselves up for "potential disaster" over the last decade with new spending. Nowhere, however, was there any serious mention of incarceration as a primary driver for the increase in state budgets. Could it be that the corporate interests that influence much of our public and tax policy hate government spendingexcept when it comes to spending that benefits their bottom line? And let's face it, prisons are big business. Perhaps that has something to do with the fact that this year ALEC awarded it's Thomas Jefferson Freedom Award to Idaho Governor Dirk Kempthorne, who heads the state that had the fastest growing incarceration rate in the country last year. Then again, maybe that's just a coincidence. Maybe.

Brigette Sarabi is Director of the Western Prison Project. A portion of this article is drawn from material published in "The Prison Payoff: The Role of Politics & Private Prisons in the Incarceration Boom," published in 2000 by Western States Center and the Western Prison Project, with research assistance from the National Institute for Money in State Politics. Additional material was developed with support from The Nation Investigative Fund.

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