Monday, May 21, 2007

New investment opportunities: prisons

I thought it might be cool to invest in shares of or Google per the news on their partnership in order to maintain a competitive edge on Microsoft, but after hearing about the new prison spending bill, I'm thinking that I should really put my money towards the exploding market of penal management.

Under a new state law, California will spend $7.4 billion to build 40,000 new prison beds, and that is over and above the current annual operating budget of more than $10 billion. Interest payments alone on the billions of dollars of bonds that will be sold to finance the new construction will amount to $330 million a year by 2011 -- all money that will not be available for higher education or other state priorities.
We always knew that the money wasn't in education or related wimpy social services that don't have any intrinsic value in our nation, other than providing people the means to position themselves in a more successful economic strata. It's actually in the management of prisoners.

Historically speaking, American prisons (and others in various "developed nations") have evolved. The main tenant in the evolution of the penal system (as a whole) centered around different core values, typically reflecting the social values of the time. As such, early prisons first stressed that penance and contemplation would do the trick, then rehabilitation of criminal habits was thought to be key in eventually reforming a person and empowering them to re-engage with society, however, that was tossed out and our focus has moved onto how to best manage the system from a fiscal perspective.

Of course, I'm simplifying this tremendously, but that's it in a nutshell: we learned we couldn't' change a criminal and so we decided that we might as well profit off it. Jeepers, that sounds dismal, right? Nah, not if your daddy gets the contract to serve mass quantities of imitation gruel to a bunch of 3-strike loafers who sold drugs.

While I'm sure you could argue that these people deserve to be incarcerated, there's a big concern for me when the state budget money gets siphoned off from the higher ed budget.

According to the May revisions of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's budget, the state will spend $10 billion on prisons in fiscal 2007-08, a 9 percent increase from last year.

Higher education spending will come to $12 billion, a nearly 6 percent increase. Moving forward, the legislative analyst says, spending on higher education probably will grow around 5 percent a year, while prisons spending will grow by at least 9 percent annually.
It kinda...doesn't... not really at all... paint a good picture about our priorities, as a state and as a part of our nation.

One could argue that if there were more opportunities for people to engage as valued members in a society that there would be less of a desire or fewer reasons to support resorting to criminal behavior. As it stands now, it would seem that the privatization of the penal system, and the money that goes to maintain it, is more important than examining the causes about why people commit criminal acts so that we can directly address those problems instead of managing the aftermath. It would make more sense to stop the bomb from detonating, as opposed to waiting to do something after it's gone off. I don't know. Maybe I'm just talking crazy here.

(click to enlarge)

I'm of the thought that most people are born good and learn to become criminals, and that learning should be taking place in schools and universities, and not in an overcrowded prison where dysfunctional behavior is neither modified nor alleviated, only tolerated and carefully managed. Chopping earmarked money for public higher educational funding is risky. It makes our social fabric that much weaker, and serves to widen the chasm between the poor and affluent. Sure there'll still be federal loans available to students, but with the cost of college increasing each year, do we really need to pass the cost of a bloated prison system onto students, with whom we're charging to lead the nation upon graduation?

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