Democracies, at least those which endeavor to take themselves seriously, find themselves confronted with special problems from time to time. One, certainly not new but which seems to be taking on a certain piquancy of late, is what to do when nuttiness migrates from the fringes to take up residence in the halls of government.
It’s one thing to read with a chuckle over your morning coffee the loopy rhetoric of a Bernie Sanders, or an Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez, or an Alex Jones, confident that it will remain little more than entertainment; it’s another thing entirely when it becomes real public policy with real public implications.
To illustrate, last week the new Denver City Council voted, disturbingly, to not renew a $10.6 million contract with CoreCivic and GEO Group, the private prison companies which run six halfway houses in Denver, representing more than two-thirds of the community corrections beds available in the city. Disturbingly, that is, in much the same sense that a vote to disband the police and fire departments would be disturbing.
What does this mean? Well, it means the city is now faced with a few limited and unattractive options, each jockeying for which is worst.
The first and most obvious is to ship the residents back to prison to finish out their sentences in cells. This is probably the least appealing option to the Department of Corrections (not to mention the offenders), exacerbating the problem of overcrowding. One of the goals of community corrections, and of criminal justice reform in general for that matter, is to ease the pressures on the prison system. Sending hundreds of people back to the pen is hardly conducive to that aim. Nor, I wager, will it do much for prisoner morale and the prospects for seamless reintegration into society.
The second option is to say the hell with it and simply release the offenders now in community corrections back onto the streets. If there is a worse option available, I’m game to hear it. The purpose of the halfway house is transition – to ease prisoners back into society rather than simply open the prison gate and let them be on their way upon parole or completion of their sentence. The idea is to see to it they have the relevant skills and social tools to lead law-abiding lives before setting them loose on the streets, hopefully reducing the chance of recidivism.
A third option was floated by the prime author of this debacle, freshly minted councilwoman Candi CdeBaca. That is for the city to use eminent domain to essentially steal these companies’ properties and run them themselves. Given the city’s fiscal track record, that gem of an idea ought to blow past the $10.6 million the contract would have cost in as little as a few months.
And there’s really not much else on the table for alternatives, the city having zoned itself out of the possibility of building any new facilities, which would take months to construct in any case. Then, of course, we’d still be left with the problem of the city being on the hook to run the things.
There weren’t many cohesive reasons recorded for the council’s 8-4 decision, but the motivations are not difficult to decipher. Private prisons have long been a despised target of the left, which doesn’t really like the idea of anything being private. The issue got an adrenaline shot in recent months with the border situation, as many of the immigration processing facilities, (puerilely referred to as “concentration camps” by activists with a shockingly insecure knowledge of history) are run by private companies. Most of the current crop of Democratic presidential candidates have called for the shutting down of privately-run ICE detention facilities and other federal institutions, with Sen. Elizabeth Warren ostentatiously going as far as to offer a policy to use the power of the federal bridle to ban them even at the state and local level. It’s no coincidence that the two companies now in the Denver City Council’s crosshairs happen to run facilities, including one in Aurora, used by ICE to detain undocumented immigrants.
Denver isn’t quite alone in its madness. A few days ago Boulder, that town which never ceases to provide fodder for commenting on contemporary public insanity, forbade its police department from extending the common practice of contracting out off-duty officers to provide a law-enforcement presence to a local business, BI Incorporated (a GEO affiliate) to safeguard their employees because — get this — the company designs and manufactures ankle monitoring devices for law enforcement agencies.
Back in Denver, CoreCivic and GEO Group, to their great credit, are keeping their facilities open without a contract, for the time being. But their generosity can’t last forever, and hope lingers that sound judgement returns to the council just long enough to renew the contracts and get on with life. In the meantime, one can’t help but wonder if Denver’s ability to absorb the residue of irresponsible experimentation can outlast the more radical elements of the new council.
Kelly Sloan is a political and public affairs consultant and a recovering journalist based in Denver. He also serves as executive director of the Freedom to Drive Coalition.