Task Force Linked to Harsh Sentencing Laws and Private Prison Firms Disbands Following Public Scrutiny, Boycott
The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), purportedly a “non-partisan” non-profit organization, brings together mostly Republican state lawmakers and corporations to develop business- and conservative-friendly model bills that are then distributed among state legislatures nationwide. Lawmakers and corporate officials mingle at “public-private partnership” conferences that are closed to the public, and the model legislation is produced by nine ALEC task forces. About 20% of the model bills are eventually passed into law; the organization has been described as a “bill mill.”
ALEC begrudgingly announced in April 2012 that it was caving in to efforts by the Center for Media and Democracy and the Occupy movement, and would disband its Public Safety & Elections Task Force – which had promoted harsher sentencing laws, anti-immigrant legislation and the self-serving interests of the private prison industry since the late 1980s. [See, e.g.: PLN, Jan. 2002, p.1].
The task force, previously known as the Criminal Justice Task Force, also promoted stand your ground laws – which gained national attention after the February 26, 2012 shooting death of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida – as well as voter suppression efforts across the U.S. and the Private Correctional Facilities Act, which authorized state governments to contract with private prison companies.
In the 1990s, ALEC drafted model legislation for mandatory minimum sentences, truth in sentencing and three-strikes laws, all of which drove up incarceration rates. Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) executives John Rees and Brad Wiggins served on ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force in the 1990s and early 2000s when such legislation was being developed. [See: PLN, Jan. 2012, p.20].
Also, in the late 1990s, CCA helped Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker (then a state representative) push legislation that would allow private prisons to operate in Wisconsin and house prisoners from other states.
While those bills failed to pass, Walker and ALEC were successful in pushing through truth in sentencing legislation in 1997, which required prisoners to serve their full sentences without the possibility of parole or supervised release.
More recently, CCA was reportedly involved in Arizona’s controversial anti-immigration law, SB1070, introduced in 2009 by since-recalled state senator and ALEC member Russell Pearce, which was expected to increase the number of immigrants held in detention – such as in CCA’s three ICE detention facilities in Arizona. [See: PLN, Nov. 2010, p.1].
Although both CCA and GEO Group – the nation’s two largest prison companies – have participated in ALEC previously, they are no longer members; CCA reportedly left the organization in 2011. CCA and GEO have denied that they lobby for harsher sentencing laws or increased reliance on incarceration; however, their participation in ALEC, if not to influence such legislation, hasn’t been adequately explained. [See: PLN, Nov. 2012, p.26; March 2011, p.1].
Following the death of Trayvon Martin, a boycott targeting ALEC’s corporate members was launched in February 2012 by Occupy Portland (Oregon) and spread nationwide, ultimately costing ALEC hundreds of members and over $1 million in funding.
The boycott forced ALEC’s corporate membership “to make a more careful, deliberate choice about what kind of political speech it actually wanted to support and put its reputation behind,” the Roosevelt Institute’s Mark Schmitt wrote in the New Republic.
On December 6, 2013, The Guardian published an extensive report on ALEC, based on internal records, that indicated over 400 lawmakers and 60 corporate members had left the organization due to controversy created by the boycott and public scrutiny. As a result, ALEC’s budget dropped by over one-third of projected income in the first six months of 2013: It collected $1.4 million less than the $3.9 million it expected.
Some of the companies that have canceled their ALEC membership include Coca-Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, Home Depot, General Electric, Amazon, Walmart, Bank of America and Visa. According to The Guardian, ALEC has started a “Prodigal Son Project” to entice the companies that left to renew their lapsed memberships.
“This is a reflection of the power of sunlight on their activities – for too many years they were operating largely in secret. Corporations are sensitive to these issues,” stated Lisa Graves, executive director of the Center for Media and Democracy, which started its ALEC Exposed Project in early 2011 by analyzing more than 800 of the organization’s model bills.
Not everyone disagrees with ALEC’s conservative and corporate-friendly agenda. Companies that continue to support ALEC reportedly include Google (despite its slogan of “don’t be evil”), AT&T, Chevron, State Farm Insurance, Philip Morris International, Shell and Time Warner Cable, as well as organizations such as Right on Crime, Justice Fellowship and the Charles Koch Institute. Plus 1,810 lawmakers remain members.
“I first came to ALEC over a decade ago. When I was serving in the Bush administration, I’d been privileged to work with ALEC in the federal government,” U.S. Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said on December 5, 2013. “I’ve been privileged to work with ALEC when I was back in Texas with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, leading the 10th Amendment Center, and I’m proud to stand with ALEC today.” Cruz told the organization to “stand your ground.”
It’s worth noting that the successful boycott of ALEC stemmed from a shooting incident tied to a single piece of model legislation produced by the organization, while for decades ALEC has developed thousands of model bills – some designed to increase sentences, expand the nation’s prison system and benefit private prison firms – without public scrutiny, interest or opposition.
ALEC’s decision to disband its Public Safety & Elections Task Force “is a partial victory for the power of grassroots citizen action,” said Graves. “But for Americans concerned about brand-name corporations underwriting ALEC’s extreme agenda,” she added, the organization’s “PR maneuver to try to distance itself from its record of extremism is an empty gesture unless it and the corporations that have bankrolled its operations work to repeal ALEC-backed laws.”
ALEC is currently facing a challenge to its tax-exempt status by opponents who claim it engages in lobbying efforts in violation of IRS rules for non-profits, which has also made potential donors hesitant to contribute to the organization. To address this issue ALEC is reportedly founding a sister group, the Jeffersonian Project, that would be formed as a 501(c)(4) organization – which would allow it to participate in political activities to a greater extent.
According to notes from an August 6, 2013 ALEC board meeting, “Any activity that could be done by ALEC may be done by Jeffersonian Project if legal counsel advises it would provide greater legal protection or lessen ethics concerns.” Additionally, the separate group would remove “questions of ethical violations made by our critics and state ethics boards and [provide] further legal protection.” ALEC also noted that the Jeffersonian Project would be a “new revenue source ... and will lead to increased funding.”
Sources: Center for Media and Democracy, www.prwatch.org, Rolling Stone, The Guardian, Huffington Post, www.alecexposed.org, www.alec.org
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