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The Prison Boom: Cashing in on "Crime"

By Robert Patton
On March 1, 2012


It's not often that the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont makes national news, but it happened last month. The story broke on February 21 and spread like wildfire. The Associated Press picked it up and distributed to news organization throughout the country.

Thanks to the alertness of the men and women that guard our nation's northern border, nearly two dozen containers containing alcoholic beverages and some marijuana that, in the wrong hands, could have been wrapped in cigarette papers and smoked in the form of joints, were seized and either destroyed or consumed by government agents. If you don't know how dangerous this is, you should watch the film "Reefer Madness" produced at taxpayer expense many decades ago. And, oh yes, one of those 30 hapless students had a single Ecstasy tablet.

Apparently the 30 Boston university students now facing charges did not know that you give up your Constitutional rights when you cross borders.

Of course your right "to be secure…against unreasonable searches and seizures" doesn't protect you if you can be tricked or intimidated into giving up that right. Suppose you are stopped on a public thoroughfare for a real or imagined violation. Let's say you were observed nodding your head while driving. Aha! Perhaps you are under the influence of something. Since we're imagining things, let's also imagine that you have a really dark complexion. Not that police single out African Americans for traffic stops. It's just a coincidence that prisons are filled with black young men.

Once you obediently pull over and present your license, registration, and proof of insurance, the officer asks your consent to look in the bag that you have sitting on the passenger seat. Your consent, of course is completely voluntary. You're not intimidated at all by the officer's Glock or Taser or, of course, the fact that he can charge you with any number of offenses and it will be your word against his in court. You wouldn't want to be viewed as uncooperative and you don't see yourself as a criminal.

Amazingly, our prisons are filled with individuals who were convicted of crimes only because they voluntarily gave up their rights. Do you think that Martha Stewart was sent to prison because of some diabolical insider trading conspiracy. Not at all. When questioned by the Feds, instead of standing on her 5th  Amendment right against self incrimination, she tried to talk her way out of the situation. The result was a conviction for fibbing to the Feds.

Just a few days before the Feds had their big score on the border, a rookie part-time cop in St. Johnsbury got credit for a major drug bust in town. Stopped for an alleged traffic violation, a local drug lord was unmasked by a drug-sniffing dog.

Oops sorry, there was no dog, just a drug-sniffing police officer. The alleged felon had secreted away nearly three ounces of cannabis sativa in several sealed plastic bags. He probably felt secure having not the slightest clue as to awesome olfactory powers of today's crime fighters.

But the officer sniffed him out. She called for back-up, searched the vehicle and found, not only the malodorous contraband, but some cocaine as well. Newspaper reports carried a police photograph of the goods as well as an unloaded .380 caliber pistol. It's not clear why the pistol was included in the photograph. Perhaps the rookie officer was not aware that Vermont law permits the carrying of handguns?

What news media neglected to report in these two recent cases was the enormous expense borne by taxpayers to take a few grams of cocaine, a few ounces of marijuana, and an Ecstasy pill out of circulation. And then there are those cans of beer that 27 BU students would not consume.

Few living Americans lived through Prohibition, but can't we learn from history? Al Capone and Eliot Ness, his government nemesis, are long gone, but their legacy lives on. As we struggle through the worst economic downturn since the Depression, our biggest growth industry is corrections. Our prisons are increasingly changing from necessary elements to protect the public to huge profit centers to enrich corporations in the new private prison industry.

Luxury hotels depend on economic growth to generate the wealth that brings them well-heeled business and vacation travelers. Not only that, they need effective marketing, attractive image, and superb customer service to attract and keep repeat customers.

Private prisons, on the other hand, need only politicians to define and create crimes, and law enforcement policies to turn newly defined crimes into new clients for costly prison housing. If a politician opposes all this, he will be called "soft on crime" and is likely to be deposed at the next election. Laws that authorize the confiscation of homes and vehicles that bear some connection, however tenuous, to a drug bust create a cash incentive for the vigorous enforcement of laws that were initially enacted by racist legislators. You didn't know that?

Marijuana was legal until it was identified with Mexican immigrants. Later association with black musicians added fuel to the fire.

Decades later, prisons are filled with drug offenders and the vast majority are black males. Maybe you're thinking of Crips, Bloods and drive-by shootings. Sorry, statistics show that black and brown people are less likely to be found with contraband when searched. The catch is that black and brown people are much more likely to be stopped and searched than those of paler hue. Not only that, but prosecutors are much more likely to throw the book at darker complected offenders.

What the drug war has done has transformed millions of Americans into criminals, made police into objects of fear rather than trust, and placed a crushing financial burden on the rest of us. Meanwhile, the drug lords continue to operate, rarely serve time in prison, and contribute to a breakdown in law and order south of the Rio Grande. And as always, the people pay the price.

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