Elk, Sloan on ALEC and Prison Sentencing and Labor

In light of the tax deal, you’ll be happy to know that movement, right-wing conservatives are excited for at least one group of people to pay a high, mid-century level marginal tax rate of 70-80%.

When researchers run statistics over state-level incarceration rates, they find things like “controlling for social disorganization, religious fundamentalism, political conservatism, and violent crimes, the results show that Republican strength [in state governments]…lead to higher imprisonment rates. Statistical interactions support predictions that these relationships became stronger after greater Republican stress on law and order.”  States with a Republican governor and Republican legislatures show a greater increase in incarcerated populations, and that the effect is stronger in the 1990s.

But how do you get from A to B?  Here’s an institution called American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, founded by one of the co-founders of the right-wing think tank Heritage Foundation, comes into play.  ALEC creates model legislation for states to pass as conservatives flocked into both governorships and legislative bodies.   A recent project, Alec Exposed, was able to get their hands on the whole body of model bills and has been going through them with reporters, including those from The Nation, which is running an excellent series on this.

The latest is The Hidden History of ALEC and Prison Labor, and it is from labor journalist Mike Elk and prisoner labor writer and activist Bob Sloan.  In it, they outline how influential ALEC was with getting these new Republican state bodies standardized and thought-out approaches to maximal incarceration and uprooting Federal prison labor protections:

Somewhat more familiar is ALEC’s instrumental role in the explosion of the US prison population in the past few decades. ALEC helped pioneer some of the toughest sentencing laws on the books today, like mandatory minimums for non-violent drug offenders, “three strikes” laws, and “truth in sentencing” laws. In 1995 alone, ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act was signed into law in twenty-five states. (Then State Rep. Scott Walker was an ALEC member when he sponsored Wisconsin’s truth-in-sentencing laws and, according to PR Watch, used its statistics to make the case for the law.) More recently, ALEC has proposed innovative “solutions” to the overcrowding it helped create, such as privatizing the parole process through “the proven success of the private bail bond industry,” as it recommended in 2007. (The American Bail Coalition is an executive member of ALEC’s Public Safety and Elections Task Force.) ALEC has also worked to pass state laws to create private for-profit prisons, a boon to two of its major corporate sponsors: Corrections Corporation of America and Geo Group (formerly Wackenhut Corrections), the largest private prison firms in the country.

ALEC’s Truth in Sentencing Act, which radically changed how sentencing is carried out in this country, passed in half the states during 1995; there is part of the institutional nuts-and-bolts of how conservative political gains are turned into a conservative world.  I’d like to see more on how the standardization “model” bills help with fast implementation – does standardization reduce fixed costs of research, talking points etc.?  Does it create a groups of states motivated to all jump together?  Does having standardized laws that pass encourage states more cautious?

The article, which is worth your time, goes on to explain how ALEC has worked to overturn prison labor laws, in part by innovating around interstate-contract laws.  My favorite: “The Prison Industries Act was also written to exploit a critical PIE loophole that seemed to suggest that its rules did not apply to prisoner-made goods that were not shipped across state lines. It allowed a third-party company to set up a local address in a state that makes prison goods, buy goods from a prison factory, sell those products locally or surreptitiously ship them across state borders.”  Fantastic.

Side note:  Workers get “paid” very low wages for their work, often a $1 an hour.  But how much of that do they get?  I’m still trying to figure out the complicated ways this all works, but looking at guidelines that have been developed in the incarceration era we see that deductions can be made for taxes, room and board, family support, restitution, and other items.  But, it is noted, that “Such deductions, in aggregate, cannot exceed 80 percent of gross wages.” So law and order conservatives like an 80% tax rate on people earning less than a dollar a day an hour. How’s that for revenues?

The most recent ALEC Prison Industry Act model bill for conservatives to move (2004) punts on how to work the deductions from prison wages, but this version from 1995 has details:

(A) The department shall withhold any pay for the inmate’s applicable state and local income taxes andfederal income, social security, and medicare taxes.

(B) Of the remaining balance:

(1) if the inmate has been ordered by the court to pay restitution to the victim of his or her crime, 20 percent shall be paid for that restitution on the inmate’s behalf, in accordance with the court order,until the amount of restitution is satisfied. If the restitution is satisfied, 10 percent shall be added to the escrow account under Subparagraph 4 and 10 percent shall be deposited with the state treasurerand credited to the general fund in addition to the amount in Subparagraph 5.

(2) if the inmate has a spouse or children, 20 percent shall be paid to the inmate’s spouse or children for the purpose of family support. If the inmate’s spouse or children receive Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) or general assistance under the social welfare acts of this state, whilethe inmate is incarcerated, the 20 percent designated in this subdivision shall be deposited with thestate treasurer and credited to the general fund as repayment of that aid or assistance, until thatamount of aid or assistance is repaid.

(3) Ten percent shall be paid to the inmate for his or her personal use while incarcerated.

(4) Ten percent shall be held by the department in an escrow account for the inmate, and shall bereturned to the inmate upon his or her release.

(5) the balance remaining after the deductions specified in Subparagraphs (1) and (4) shall bedeposited with the state treasurer and credited to the general fund, as partial reimbursement to thestate for the cost of the inmate’s imprisonment and care.

Pay regular taxes, and then pay and additional amount that could be 70-80%.  Now that’s a marginal tax rate!

#2 is my absolutely favorite.  Pre-welfare reform, when AFDC was still in effect, if a prisoner’s spouse or children received welfare the prisoner would have to pay the state back out of wages.  (Mind you, if a prisoner’s spouse or children claimed a mortgage-interest tax deduction, or had their employers provide health care that was subsidized, then they don’t have to pay that back.)  How’s that for a war on the poor with every racial signal flare firing into the air?

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13 Responses to Elk, Sloan on ALEC and Prison Sentencing and Labor

  1. Dolokhov says:

    Error: “So law and order conservatives like an 80% tax rate on people earning less than a dollar a day,” but at the beginning of the paragraph you say they make about one dollar an hour. Do they only work one hour a day?

    • Elias says:

      I’m not familiar with the work conditions experienced by most prison laborers, but the inmate firefighters employed by the CDCR (California) literally make less than $1.50 a day (before taxes, restitution, etc…) while performing ‘grade work’. I don’t know if these inmates are representative of the larger population, but they certainly perform more physically demanding labor than just about anybody I could imagine, incarcerated or free.

      At least for this small group of around 4000 prisoners, it really is about a dollar a day…

  2. Mike says:

    Whoops. Dollar an hour. Corrected, thanks!

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  4. Ryan says:

    Yeah, if you didn’t already think that ALEC was slime, this is part of an interview that Terry Gross from NPR’s “Fresh Air” show did with Noble Ellington,the national chairman of ALEC. Ellington dug himself a fairly deep hole and kept on digging deeper and deeper..

    This was not probably not one of Ellington’s finest moments.
    GROSS: Do you think the organization should be more transparent so that citizens know when bills are being drafted with input by corporations who stand to make profits from the legislation?

    Mr. ELLINGTON: I think our model legislation, as it – when it comes before state legislatures, it is absolutely as transparent as it can get. While we may be discussing it, it may not be transparent, but before it’s passed, legislators have to say we approve this model legislation. Not the corporations. They can’t say. They don’t have a vote. Legislators say. And then a state legislator can then introduce that model legislation in his state. It goes through the it is assigned to a committee. It goes through a committee. The public has input, the public has an opportunity to hear, they have an opportunity to talk to their legislators about the legislation, so I don’t see how you can get much more transparent than that.

    GROSS: But I was talking about transparency in the early process, during the drafting of the bill, when the corporations are involved in, when they do have input into what the ingredients will be.

    Mr. ELLINGTON: They do, but that doesn’t make it law. That makes it nothing but a piece of model legislation. And if a legislator doesn’t choose to introduce it, then it’s one of those thousand bills that’s in the library.
    The entire episode on “Fresh Air” regarding ALEC can be found here:

    • Sandi says:

      And the odds of a representative not introducing said legislation is exactly zero. As I type, my state legislator is being wined and dined in New Orleans, no doubt receiving accolades for working hand in glove with his corporate masters. NC has passed several pieces of ALEC inspired legislation this year. Next year will no doubt be worse yet. The leadership in the General Assembly is feeling extremely cocky. Let’s hope the old saw proves true, about pride going before a fall, because these toads need to go down.
      We in NC are beginning to organize what push-back we can.

  5. Rhadamanthus says:

    With respect to a “war on the poor,” I think you’ve got the arrow of causation pointed wrong, and in a rather insulting way. It’s not that the poor are all criminals (only a fraction of poor people are criminals), it’s that criminals (other than bankers and their ilk) are mostly poor, because most criminals of the sort who end up in prison have both relatively low IQ and poor impulse control, and cannot earn high wages even when not incarcerated.

    Asking prisoners who earn wages in prison industries to repay the state for public assistance (welfare) given their spouses and children is not a war on the poor. At worst it might be an “extra punishment” for criminals who beget children they don’t then wish to support– but many people think it is not punitive to force parents to support their children. If you were writing about family courts garnishing the wages of divorced fathers for child support, would you call that “a war on the working class?”

  6. Ted K says:

    This makes me think of two things. Firstly the “great” female governor of the state of Arizona and all her shenanigans there. I’d put 1 or 2 good videos up on her if Mike had Embedding videos here. Basically she takes bribes from the private prison industry to increase the prison population there. They even import border states’ prisoners into Arizona (Oklahoma if memory serves me correctly).

    The second thing it reminds me of is the Warden in “Shawshank Redemption” when he thanks the guy for his wife’s crappy pie. A relative of mine used to be what they call a “case manager” at a prison. The profiteering that goes on would be unbelievable to many.

    Anyone wanting to know how weird prisons can be should research the story of Bobbi Parker. She was the wife of the deputy prison warden who ran off (helped an inmate escape) from the same prison her husband oversaw. She is now proclaiming her innocence after having “chauffeured” the prisoner off the prison in her family’s van, and then living with him on a chicken farm.

    As Bobbi Parker is being tried now Oklahoma state authorities seem to be intentionally stalling, so as to let Parker get her slap on the wrist, and most likely serve zero jail time. Of course the women’s groups are coming out of the woodworks, as the more ludicrous the situation the more the feminist groups feel the need to pull out all the stops.

    Everytime you think you’ve heard it all eh??

  7. kbmcg says:

    Sorry for the unrelated comment, but I just saw someone named Chambers from Standard and Poor’s saying that “our job is to hold a mirror up to nature.” Really?

  8. sara says:

    The broader questions you raise about how model legislation works on the ground would be a great empirical project for someone. Model legislation is not new — since the Progressive Era or so, there’ve been law reform groups, single-issue groups, even individuals who go around the country promoting this or that model law. But my sense is that ALEC represents something new, in its comprehensive and national scope, in the institutional set-up and the way the model laws actually get drafted, and in the financial incentives involved (even if indirect).

    Another issue that might be worth studying is the prevalence of law-trained staffers in state legislatures and whether/how that makes a difference. Some state legislatures don’t have a single lawyer in the legislature. I’d also guess state legislatures vary widely in what kind of staff support they have. I know Sacramento employs a lot of analysts and staffers and whatnot, but in other states, being a legislator is a super-part-time, almost more of a volunteer gig. Maybe these factors play into which states are more open to implementing pre-packaged legislation of the type ALEC conveniently offers? Again, would be interesting to study further (or, if anyone knows of any studies, let me know).

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  11. mel in oregon says:

    the biggest reason people are in prison is poverty. and when you’re in the hood there are no jobs & the only people that make money are drug dealers. sure you’ve got a 1 in 10,000 chance at big money in sports if you’re male. plus the schools are so crummy, you can’t learn no matter how hard you try. it’s hard to concentrate when you haven’t eaten in 24 hours, & police sirens were blaring all night long. ghettos are really just as extension of the slave trade.

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