Rise in Federal Policing, Surveillance and Immigration Enforcement Signals Growth and Adaptation of U.S. Criminal Justice System

Over 450 new offenses added to federal law, Immigration arrests increased more than 200%, and federal expenditures on policing up 925% since 1982

Oakland, CA–According to a new report released today by the Justice Policy Institute, the U.S. prison industrial complex continues to find ways to expand and adapt, despite the fact that a decade-long battle against imprisonment, surveillance, and policing has educated the public about the dangers of imprisonment and helped to slow prison growth.
Moving Target: A Decade of Resistance to the Prison Industrial Complex, a report written to commemorate the 10th anniversary of Critical Resistance, examines the progress of reform 10 years after Critical Resistance first launched its efforts to dismantle the Prison Industrial Complex (PIC). The PIC refers to the relationship between government and private interests that use imprisonment, policing, and surveillance as a solution to social, political, and economic problems.

According to the report, polling finds that 65 percent of people support interventions that address the underlying causes of harm in our communities over purely punitive sentencing. Nonetheless, the rapid growth of policing, immigration enforcement, and surveillance has created a reality in which more than seven million people live under the control of the criminal justice system. The report found that spending on the system, including policing, imprisonment, and the judiciary, has increased 64 percent between 1996 and 2005 to a total of $213 billion annually.

“Incarceration rates continue to increase whether crime rates are going up or down. Some of the people most targeted by the PIC are those immigrating to the U.S., the poor and people of color,” says Rose Braz, campaigns director for Critical Resistance.

According to Moving Target, the prison industrial complex is fed by media messages that influence public opinion and policy makers. This has led to the criminalization of addiction, poverty, mental illness and immigrant status. The report pointed to television media’s reinforcement of stereotypes about poverty. In one study, of the 239 news stories that mentioned symptoms of poverty, approximately 39 percent portrayed crime, drugs, and gangs as a manifestation of poverty.

The prison industrial complex has an overwhelmingly disproportionate affect on communities of color and people living in poverty, according to the report. African Americans are now more than five times as likely as whites to be housed in a prison or jail, while Latinos land behind bars at a rate that is more than twice that or their white counterparts. Although African Americans and Latinos combined make up only a third of the U.S. population, they constitute almost two-thirds of prison and jail populations.

The report documents how the media also feeds public fear of immigrants by frequently portraying them as criminals. This is despite research which shows that while the number of undocumented immigrants increased 57 percent from 1990 to 2000, crime rates plummeted to some of the lowest in U.S. history.

“Because the media has a powerful influence on public policy, it has a correlating responsibility to ensure that its depictions are accurate and fair, ” says Justice Policy Institute Executive Director Sheila Bedi. “This report documents that when it comes to communities of color and crime, the media has completely abdicated its responsibility to the truth, and instead uses its reach to perpetuate falsehoods that fuel destructive stereotypes about our communities.”

Exacerbating the impact of the prison industrial complex on people of color is the disproportionate imprisonment of people living in poverty. In 2002, 83 percent of people in jail earned less than $2,000 per month prior to arrest. As people of color are also disproportionately affected by poverty, they are also more likely to be imprisoned. African Americans made up about 13 percent of the general population but approximately 22 percent of the people living in poverty and 40 percent of people in prisons and jails in 2006.

“Prison, just like poor schools, low-paying jobs, and substandard housing, seems reserved for low-income people and people of color,” said Debbie Reyes of California Prison Moratorium Project. “The current system is set up to ensure that food, housing, and health remain scarce commodities for certain members of our communities. We’ve got to make change, and today is a good time to start that process.”

Other areas in which the prison industrial complex is expanding include:

  • From 2000 to 2007, 454 new offenses were added to the federal crime code, coinciding with a 32 percent increase in the number of people imprisoned in federal prisons from 2000 to 2006.
  • The media influence on public perceptions, and the frequency with which the media reports crime, feeds the desire to incarcerate. In 1994, when the violent crime rate was at its peak, there were more than 2,500 media crime stories. But as the violent crime rate continued to fall, the number of crime stories continued to fluctuate for the next 10 years, regardless of crime trends.
  • The number of people in prison has increased by 30 percent and the jail population has grown 32 percent since 1998. At the same time, the number of people on probation or parole has increased by 15 percent.
  • From 1996 to 2005, government spending on criminal justice-related expenses increased by 64 percent. This increase represents additional funding for police, prisons, jails, and the judiciary.
  • Expenditures on police and related agencies grew the fastest in the last decade with a 77 percent increase since 1996. While the growth of local police forces has slowed considerably, federal policing has increased dramatically, up 57 percent in the past eight years.
  • Video surveillance is a $9.2 billion industry, and it is expected to grow to $21 billion by 2010.
  • In 2002, approximately 14 million white Americans had used drugs in the previous month, compared to about 2.6 million African Americans who had done so. As of 2004, nearly twice as many African Americans (112,737) as whites (65,919) were imprisoned for drug offenses in state prisons.

The report concludes that advocates must be just as innovative and flexible as the prison industrial complex in order to dismantle the system, while resisting so-called reforms that inadvertently expand the reach of the criminal justice system. Positive social investments in education, employment, mental health services, and substance abuse treatment are cost effective means of creating strong communities.

“This report shows that the priorities of federal, state and local governments are on policing, surveillance, and imprisonment as solutions to economic and social problems, and we know that doesn’t work,” said Linda Evans of All of Us or None, an organization of formerly incarcerated people. “We know that investing on the front-end and providing meaningful opportunities for education and employment are proven to make communities safer.”

For more information on Critical Resistance, a national grassroots organization formed 10 years ago to advocate for the end of the PIC, or on the CR10 conference in Oakland from Sept.26 -28, contact Malik Russell at 510.830.6961.