For-profit prisons strongly approve of bipartisan criminal justice reform bill

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From left, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, Cory Booker, D-N.J., and Mike Lee, R-Utah, arrive for a news conference in the Capitol on the passage of the criminal justice reform bill, the First Step Act. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Jared Kushner. Charles and David Koch. Kim Kardashian West.

Those are some of the names of individuals heavily involved in advocating for the FIRST STEP Act, a bipartisan criminal justice reform bill that passed both chambers of Congress with flying colors this week.

But in addition to the unusual coalition of supporters, the nation’s largest for-profit federal prison contractors also weighed in on the bill, and they appear to be happy with it.

CoreCivic, the largest private prison contractor in the U.S., spent $840,000 on lobbying through the first nine months of 2018, focusing on various subjects regarding private prisons, but saying it does not advocate for or against policies “that would determine the basis for an individual’s incarceration or detention.”

The company lauded the passage of the FIRST STEP Act on Wednesday, highlighting its benefits to inmates.

“I’ve said for years that America’s high recidivism rates are a tragic and unacceptable national crisis,” the company’s president and CEO Damon Hininger said in a statement. “This legislation is, indeed, an important “first step” in helping inmates successfully reenter our communities and stay out of prison.”

GEO Group, the other of the two giants of the private prison industry, spent nearly $1.2 million lobbying through September 2018 and employed lobbyist Brian Ballard, who chaired President Donald Trump’s joint fundraising committee in 2016 and served as vice chair on Trump’s inauguration committee.

The company mentioned the FIRST STEP Act in several of its lobbying disclosure forms and said it does not advocate for or against criminal justice policy “related to criminalizing certain behaviors or determining the length of criminal sentences,” instead focusing on promoting rehabilitation programs. The company released a statement in November saying “we enthusiastically endorse the recidivism reduction strategies featured in the FIRST STEP Act.”

Management and Training Corporation (MTC), the third-largest prison contractor, also applauded the Senate for passing the criminal justice reform act. The company spent $517,500 through September, lobbying on issues related to private prisons and job corps.

The FIRST STEP Act only affects federal prisoners, who make up more than one-tenth of the incarcerated population. The bill eases sentences for drug offenders, gives judges more leeway to opt against mandatory minimum sentences, implements rehabilitative and vocational courses to minimum and low-risk prisoners and authorizes millions toward an expansion of post-prison services to help re-integrate inmates.

The law does not appear to be a major threat to the industry, and in fact, the for-profit prison industry will certainly be able to profit from it. The Tampa Bay Times reported that GEO Group bought Community Education Centers, one of the country’s leading providers of rehabilitative “halfway houses,” for $360 million last year and told investors it intended to make more purchases.

The last time private prisons faced the threat of a major drop in revenue, they took serious and swift action.

In August 2016, the Obama administration announced it would begin phasing out private prisons, as the federal inmate population was dropping. With a significant portion of their revenue coming from federal contracts, for-profit prisons did not approve.

MTC condemned the decision, as did CoreCivic, known at that point as Corrections Corporation of America.

With Trump promising to support private prisons if elected, the industry saw a light at the end of the tunnel. GEO Group and its subsidiaries gave $170,000 to Trump Victory — the same fundraising committee its lobbyist Ballard ran — and another $275,000 to pro-Trump super PAC Rebuilding America Now, with one its contributions coming one day after the Obama administration announcement.

The industry gave a record $1.6 million to candidates, parties and outside spending groups in 2016, nearly double their contributions in 2012, and 85 percent of candidate contributions went to Republicans.

After Trump was elected, both GEO Group and CoreCivic gave $250,000 to his inauguration.

Even if the bill did significantly hurt the industry, it’s possible for-profit prisons simply had no choice but to support legislation that was so universally praised. The House passed the bill 358-36 Thursday shortly after it breezed through the Senate with 87 votes on Tuesday.

The FIRST STEP Act had the reluctant support of liberal and criminal justice reform groups, many of which said it is quite literally a “first step” and should be the precursor to future reforms. In a surprising marriage of ideologies, the Koch brothers pushed the bill and helped craft it with the help of Jared Kushner.

While there wasn’t much need to convince Democrats to support the measure, Koch Industries marketed the bill to conservatives as a way to help bring inmates out of prison better educated and more skilled, to save taxpayers money and to reduce crime overall.

“700,000 people are coming out of prison each year — we want them coming out better, more educated and more skilled,” Koch Industries vice president and general counsel Mark Holden told the Washington Post. “This ultimately reduces crime — a big win for all of society and public safety,”

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