Connect the Dots

Federal Judge Mary Scriven has issued a temporary stay of Florida’s new law requiring welfare applicants to take and pay for drug tests before receiving benefits (they get the money back if they pass, assuming they can scrape up the extra cash in the first place). Scriven, a George W. Bush appointee, expressed concern over how test results could be used:

The drug test can reveal a host of private medical facts about the individual, Scriven wrote, adding that she found it “troubling” that the drug tests are not kept confidential like medical records. The results can also be shared with law enforcement officers and a drug abuse hotline [emphasis mine].

“This potential interception of positive drug tests by law enforcement implicates a ‘far more substantial’ invasion of privacy than in ordinary civil drug testing cases,” said Scriven, who was appointed by President George W. Bush.

I’d heard about the drug tests – and about the less than rampant drug use they’ve uncovered thus far (out of more than 7,000 applicants tested, only 32 tested positive, mostly for marijuana).  I hadn’t heard that the law allowed the applicants’ test results to be shared with law enforcement. It’s not a stretch to assume those applicants wouldn’t be able to afford good legal counsel if this sharing resulted in arrests. Gov. Rick Scott campaigned for the law by claiming welfare recipients use drugs at a much higher rate than the general population. Did he think he could turn all those welfare-seeking druggies over to the police? And if so, to whose benefit?

During the same session that saw passage of the testing law, the Florida legislature voted to privatize 30 state prisons in the southern part of the state. Could there be a connection here? The legislature chose to go this “cost-cutting” route despite hearing good evidence that there’s a better way to reduce costs: actually rehabilitate people.

Unfortunately, a more productive and cost-effective approach to reducing Florida’s corrections costs appears to have been cast aside by lawmakers after some early enthusiasm. In January, Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano, was invited to Tallahassee to share the reforms that saved his state significant money by reducing recidivism while still protecting public safety.

The philosophy, embraced by many in the law enforcement community, including former Gov. Jeb Bush’s corrections director, Jim McDonough, is to invest in rehabilitation to reduce recidivism. This includes helping offenders control mental health or substance abuse problems and getting them the education and training they need to Pokies get jobs.

McDonough says statistics show that recidivism is reduced almost 40 percent with some degree of treatment, and it slides another 3 to 4 percent with every year of math and English literacy attained. The use of ankle bracelets and other forms of community control, instead of prison, also help keep nonviolent offenders attached to jobs and family while racking up major savings for the corrections system [emphasis mine].

It should be the state’s goal to keep the prison population as low as possible while still protecting public safety.  Raise your hand if you think private prison companies share that goal.  Anyone?

You may be reading this and thinking “duh!” I expect other people have made the connection before now. As mooncat notes at Left in Alabama, our very own Republican legislators are chomping at the bit to introduce their own drug testing bill. That and Alabama’s new immigration law, assuming it survives legal challenges, will pack our prisons to the rafters. Which will lead to calls for controlling costs. Which will lead to calls for “cost-cutting” privatization.  Which will lead to even more prison labor. Why pay a living wage when you can pay convicts a pittance? (Note the connections between the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), Kris Kobach, author of Arizona’s SB1070 and Alabama’s HB56, and Corrections Corporation of America.)

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Florida’s mass privatization efforts have been blocked, at least temporarily, by a judge’s ruling that the legislature can’t hide its intent within budget provisions:

The legislature’s move to bury key details on privatization in the state budget is unconstitutional, Leon County Circuit Court Judge Jackie Fulford in Tallahassee ruled. The 2012 budget provision changes the legal process for privatizing facilities and directs the Department of Corrections to replace state employees with private ones at certain prisons.

“This court concludes that if it is the will of the legislature to itself initiate privatization of Florida prisons, as opposed to DOC, the legislature must do so by general law, rather than using the hidden recesses of the General Appropriations Act,” Fulford said in the ruling.

So all the Republican majority in the legislature has to do is pass a law during the next session privatizing the prisons. If they get lucky with the Roberts court, they’ll get their drug testing back too. Then it’s full speed ahead. And coming soon to Alabama. Right now, neither Corrections Corporation of America nor GEO Group has any facilities in the state but I bet we’re in both business plans.

 

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