From Southern Poverty Law Center
It came to be known as “kids for cash.”
That was the name given to the alleged $2.8 million bribery scheme in which a former Pennsylvania judge was accused of sentencing children to for-profit detention centers for kickbacks.
This month, the judge went on trial in that case and, days later, was convicted on several of the counts from the federal indictment. Unfortunately, this incident is only the latest to raise concerns about the wisdom of allowing for-profit companies into the juvenile justice system.
The toxic effect of for-profit companies on the juvenile justice system is indisputable. Across the country, nearly half of all children held behind bars live in facilities managed by private, for-profit companies. And tough economic times may spur more local governments to consider turning over their juvenile facilities to companies.
But when we create a profit motive to imprison children we risk creating a public safety crisis. The bottom line is that private prison companies make money when young people fill their facilities. A private prison company has no incentive to provide rehabilitative services that—if done correctly—could decrease the demand for prison beds. These companies similarly have no incentive to question whether the children in their custody could be better served with far less expensive community based interventions. These realities can stymie reform and create a costly, self perpetuating cycle of imprisonment.
The Southern Poverty Law Center recently filed two federal lawsuits that demonstrate in graphic detail the dangers of imprisoning children for profit—often that means corners are cut, duties are shirked and young lives are irreparably damaged.
In Mississippi, several private entities profit off the Walnut Grove Youth Correctional Facility—a place that has become synonymous with violence and abuse. Prison staffers beat the youths in their custody. They sold drugs to them. They even engaged in sexual relationships with them. Young men languished without medical care and others have been beaten and raped.
Remarkably, because of a contract that allowed the facility to make money for each young man imprisoned there, the prison has only grown – tripling in size since opening its doors in 2001. About 1,200 young men are now in the custody of these companies. It’s bad news for the community, but good business for the companies. The more juveniles they lock up, the more money they get from the state.
At the Thompson Academy juvenile prison in Broward County, Fla., children suffered abuse and neglect as well. But when these youths attempted to contact lawyers, they were intimidated and coerced into signing statements ending or declining legal representation. Apparently, allowing these young people to recount their experiences to a lawyer would be bad for business.
These lawsuits are only two examples of a greater problem across this country. Our juvenile justice system is being undermined by for-profit prison companies.
We shouldn’t be surprised when we hear about “kids for cash” schemes. This is an industry where a company’s success depends on the failure of our children. And it thrives when the children in its care are ignored and forgotten.
Our children and our communities deserve better. And it’s why we must demand a juvenile justice system that doesn’t turn a profit every time it destroys a young life.