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Since the early 1990s, the growth of private prisons at the state level and the evolving nature of state sentencing laws have become familiar legislative topics across the country.

The number of private prisons grew across the United States in the 1990s, in part because a toughon-crime attitude put more people behind bars for longer periods of time. As prison populations increased, so did the costs to the states. These conditions brought private-prison companies to the halls of state government with promises of savings.

But what amounted to possible savings for the states also represented potential profits for the firms getting the business. Thus the shift to privatization was a business move that involved a number of typical business practices for the firms involved, including the long-established practice of contributing to political campaigns.

While the companies and their officials were working the halls of state capitols to advocate their policy positions, they also were opening their checkbooks during campaign season.

During the 2002 and 2004 election cycles, companies involved in private prisons and those affiliated with them contributed generously to candidates and state political parties. All told, the companies, their executives, directors and lobbyists gave $3.3 million in 44 states between 2000 and 2004 — a figure that includes contributions from not only private-prison firms, but also the investment and construction companies, food service providers, health-care management and counseling services that do business with them.

Florida led all states in contributions, with candidates and political parties there receiving $647,600, or almost 20 percent of the contributions. Texas and New Jersey followed, with nearly $519,000 and $323,000 in contributions, respectively. Six states received no private-prison contributions: Delaware, Iowa, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Dakota and South Dakota.

Companies favored states with some of the toughest sentencing laws, particularly those that had enacted legislation to lengthen the sentence given to any offender who was convicted of a felony for the third time. Private-prison interests gave almost $2.1 million in 22 states that had a so-called “three-strikes law,” compared with $1.2 million in 22 states that did not.

Analysis of campaign contributions made to state-level candidates and political parties also reveals that private-prison interests:

  • Gave two-thirds of their money to candidates, who received nearly $2.2 million during the study period. The remainder went to state-level political party committees.
  • Favored incumbents, both those seeking re-election and those not up for election but raising money for future campaigns. These incumbents received $1.6 million of the $2.2 million given to candidates, while those challenging a seated incumbent received about one-tenth of that amount, at $167,250. Candidates vying for an open seat received $410,830.
  • Backed winners, giving 65 percent of the candidate contributions to winning candidates.
  • Concentrated their giving on legislative candidates who, if elected, act on state budgets and sentencing laws. These candidates received almost half of the money given to candidates — slightly more than $1 million.
  • Gave heavily to gubernatorial candidates, who propose budgets and set policy directions and also have the authority to veto laws passed by the legislature. About $873,300 of the candidate money went to gubernatorial candidates, who have the power to suggest and to support privatization as a way of keeping their states’ budgets in balance.
  • Favored Republicans, giving 64 percent of the industry’s $3.3 million to Republican candidates and Republican Party committees.

Companies themselves and the lobbyists they hired gave the biggest portions of the funds. The companies gave almost $1.6 million, or 48 percent of the total. Lobbyists gave nearly $1.1 million, or 33 percent. The remainder came from company officials, members of the companies’ boards of directors, construction companies that work on prison projects and firms that subcontract to provide services to private prisons.

Lobbyists hired by the private-prison industry were the top contributors in 10 states, and the only source of private-prison money in another seven states.

As part of its analysis of private-prison giving, the Institute looked at corrections legislation and budgets in 10 states where contributions were highest or where legislators introduced measures of interest, such as changes to private-prison contracting procedures, private-prison oversight or sentencing laws.

Some states have recently begun re-examining their corrections policies as overcrowding and high costs continue.

Lawmakers looked at a wide variety of proposals, some of which would have benefited private prisons and others that would have shifted state funds away from them. While the success or failure of the measures can’t be definitively linked to campaign contributions, the companies and their associates typically targeted their contributions to winners and incumbents, to be as effective as possible in supporting their agenda. For example:

  • In Florida, when the prospect of re-opening bids for the operation of five private prisons surfaced, private-prison vendors lobbied successfully for the elimination of the commission overseeing the bidding process.
  • In Arizona, the industry contributed to 29 of the 42 members of the committees that heard a 2003 proposal to increase the number of private-prison beds in the state. Those testifying in favor of the bill included a vice president of a private-prison firm that stood to benefit from the original proposal.
  • Colorado had contracted to house out-of-state prisoners from other states to alleviate overcrowding issues in those states. But when faced with its own overcrowding problems, Colorado made plans to prohibit out-of-state prisoners. Pressure from the private-prison industry led to the rejection of the plan.
  • Texas, known for its tough-on-crime attitude, continues to elect and reelect legislators with that attitude. The industry gave generously to powerful, well-established legislative leaders and members of committees hearing measures affecting sentencing.
  • In Indiana, shortly after becoming governor, Mitch Daniels looked for ways to turn government services over to the private sector. Within months, food and nursing services in state prisons were handed over to the private companies, and the state contracted for the first private prison in the state.
  • After taking office, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour emphasized private prisons as a way of saving money.

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