If We Imprison Fewer People, We’ll Need Fewer Corrections Officers

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I’m pleased to see that the Commonwealth Foundation is taking a civil libertarian line on reducing the prison population instead of giving political cover to chest-thumping “tough on crime” lawmakers. They’re absolutely right about this shameful behavior from the corrections officers’ union:

As Pennsylvania takes a hard look at reforming its criminal justice system, prepare for the Pennsylvania State Corrections Officers Association’s fear-mongering campaign against reducing prison populations.

The officers’ union opposition surfaced in today’s Patriot-News article. The article explains Corrections Secretary John Wetzel’s plan to reduce the inmate population by more than 2,500 next year by making the correction system more efficient. For instance, it can take more than 100 days after an inmate is granted parole until he’s released. Reducing this time would not only free up prison beds, it saves significant tax dollars—an extra 100 days in prison wastes $9,000.

As the prison population declines, so could the number of correction officers.  From the experience in other states, such as California and New York, self-interested unions have stonewalled meaningful reforms that would chip away at their jobs.

CF is using a union-busting frame to be maximally persuasive to an audience of Republican lawmakers, staffers and voters, but that’s the basic shape of the issue.

I’d put it more like this: if we’re going to achieve the progressive goal of reversing the terrifying trend of runaway mass incarceration, that necessarily means fewer people are going to work as corrections officers.

That’s just how it is – if we want fewer prisons, some of the people who now work in prisons will have to do something else.

On a lot of key issues, the political goals of the Democratic Party and the economic interests of unions are broadly aligned, so Democratic voters are usually primed to agree with whatever the union position is on a given issue.

But on this issue, the unions’ interests are aligned with the private prisons industry, and their goal is an ever-increasing prison population that will employ an ever-increasing number of corrections officers. 

This makes perfect sense from the prison industry’s standpoint, but I think most progressives would agree with me that unchecked prison growth would be a moral disaster, and an extremely dark vision of the future.

The really upsetting thing about the Patriot News article is that the corrections officers’ union isn’t even fearmongering about a change in sentencing laws or drug laws or anything else that would reduce the expected future growth of the prison population.

The policy they’re pushing back on would merely let inmates who are already approved to be released on parole to be released on a shorter timetable. Can you imagine what’s going to happen if somebody ever proposes real sentencing reform?

This entry was posted in Miscellany.

2 Responses to If We Imprison Fewer People, We’ll Need Fewer Corrections Officers

  1. Matt Thomas says:

    We are all mindful of the considerable cost of incarceratiing criminal offenders.
    Nevertheless, we all might suffer a heavier price by way of having these same offenders out in our streets.
    Apparently you have no idea of the Commonwealth Foundation's core agenda…which has nothing to do with prison reform and everything to do with destroying the right of employees to collectively bargain not only in terms of the public sector, but for those workers in every sector of Pennsylvania's economy.
    Worst of all, you go on to parrot this same CF subterfuge on a blog dedicated to Democratic politics.
    May one suggest that you find a right-wing Republican blog to post your anti-union garbage, or better yet, enroll yourself as an aspiring "ditto-head" on the Rush Limbaugh show.

    • jongeeting says:

      I'm well aware of what the Commonwealth Foundation's agenda is, but on this issue they're right. Corrections officers' interests are aligned with the prison industry on this. Not saying they're bad dudes, but their short term incentive is to keep the Corrections budget increasing at a steady clip. The real progressive position here, in my view, is to be working toward a radical reduction in the prison population. That runs up against union interests, which I'm not particularly happy about, but that's how I'm ordering my priorities. Doesn't make me a rightwinger or some braindead Limbaugh fanboy.