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“Mass Incarceration Nation: The Truth Behind Reagan’s War on Drugs”

Mikaela Linder, Writer

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Former President Ronald W. Reagan was famous for his celebrity status, communication skills, and strong conservative views. Reagan’s political viewpoints centered on the betterment of the United States and prioritized America. A firm believer in conservative methods of governing, Reagan focused heavily on reducing big government spending, establishing a limited government, and federalism. In following the conservative belief of keeping government small, Reagan was an active supporter of the privatization of government programs and services. Reagan’s dedication to privatization eventually developed into its own Commission. Created in an executive order passed in 1987, Reagan’s Commission on Privatization was devoted to “[identifying] government programs that are not properly the responsibility of the federal government or that can be performed more efficiently by the pri­vate sector” (United States, Congress, Commission on Privatization 11). However, it was clear that from the start, Reagan’s commission was focused on one thing: the prison system (Brinkley 1).

Reagan’s plan to privatize the penal system had begun long before the development of his Commission on Privatization. Since Reagan lacked credible examples of successful privatization attempts, Reagan intended on making the prison system into the ideal example, which would strengthen his pro-privatization argument. Unbeknownst to the public, Reagan’s privatization plan began with the orchestration of the War on Drugs and quickly spread across the country. When the War on Drugs was first announced in 1982, drug addiction was treated as a crime issue instead of a health issue, with the public believing that incarceration and longer criminal sentencing was the solution to addiction (13th 0:16:55). Capitalizing on the public’s belief, Reagan developed and passed harsher criminal sentencing reforms that caused the prison industry to grow exponentially. Reagan launched the War on Drugs with the intent of creating a wave of mass incarcerations that would cause a failure of the existing prison system, ultimately leading to the development and growth of the private prison industry.

While Reagan claimed to have launched the War on Drugs to protect society from drug abuse, there was an overwhelming lack of statistics to support his claims. Between 1974 and 1982, the climate regarding drugs in America was relatively calm, with 0-2 % of Americans identifying drugs as the nation’s most important problem (Beckett and Sasson 54). It was not until Reagan officially launched the War on Drugs that concern surrounding the drug pandemic began to rise (Beckett and Sasson 54). Additionally, the Reagan administration helped feed the public’s concern through their uses of “arguments that logically exceeded the available facts” (Hawdon 421). Providing a stark contrast against the War on Drugs’ claims, statistics provided by the National Institute for Drug Abuse state that overall drug use was actually on the decline before the War on Drugs was announced (Hawdon 419-20). This discrepancy in facts made by the Reagan administration calls into question the legitimacy of the War on Drugs, implying that the War on Drugs had ulterior motives. Through his false claims, Reagan convinced the public that drugs were an unstoppable threat, thus creating a sense of panic within society. Reagan exploited this panic and began advocating for criminal justice reforms, citing them as a necessity for the safety of the public; however, these reforms would ultimately benefit Reagan’s plan to privatize the prison system by prompting a spike in incarceration rates across the country.

After making the War on Drugs into a cause for national panic, Reagan continued with his plan to privatize the the prison system by passing several criminal justice reforms that devastated the existing prison system. During the height of the War on Drugs, Reagan passed the Sentencing Reform Act of 1984, which eliminated probation and parole for certain offenses and mandated longer sentences for others (Bender 4). Reagan also passed two Anti-Drug Abuse Acts in 1986 and 1988, which increased federal funding for narcotics control, developed harsher penalties for possession of small amounts of narcotics, and established mandatory minimum sentences for various criminal offenses (Beckett and Sasson 55-6). Department of Justice statistics indicate that these reforms caused the national prisoner population to grow from 740,000 to 1.6 million between 1985-1995 (Dolovich 455). Due to this increase, the majority of state run prisons were experiencing an overcrowding crisis, with several under court orders to relieve inhumane levels of overcrowding (“Getting Tough” 10-11). Passing these reforms was a major victory for the Reagan administration because they generated higher incarceration rates that overwhelmed the prison systems. Reagan needed to overcrowded prisons to prove that the existing system was failing and provide reason as to why privatization was a necessary cause of action to save the system. By breaking the existing prison system through his War on Drugs, Reagan provided himself with a concrete reason to finally begin privatizing prisons.

After the War on Drugs fragmented the penal system, Reagan capitalized on the rising incarceration rates and financial constraints of many states in order to initiate the privatization of prisons. As prison populations reached dangerous levels, states were left with two choices: begin construction on new prisons or turn over responsibility of the penal system to private companies (Dolovich 455). The first option, building new prisons, was nearly impossible due to the high cost of constructing and managing additional prisons. In 1985, it was reported that construction of a “new high capacity minimum security facility could cost upwards of $140 million,” while the average annual cost of running the same sized facility was “$7 million per year, or some $14,000 per prisoner” (Dolovich 456). This immense financial strain left many states with no choice but to seek the help of private prison companies, who promised to construct and manage prisons more cheaply than the state could (Dolovich 456). In exchange for their services, states paid these private companies a set fee for each inmate per day in prison. This meant that the private prison companies profited from large inmate populations who were incarcerated for extended periods of time (Dolovich 458). Well aware of the financial strain put upon the penal system, Reagan intentionally increased prison populations in order to coerce states into privatizing their prison systems. Since there were no other cost effective solutions to relieve the overcrowding created by the War on Drugs, states had to begin privatization and were unable to voice concerns over the new direction the government began taking. This allowed Reagan to quickly institute a major aspect to his political agenda with no resistance from opposing sides. As Reagan began privatizing prisons, he also looked to continue growth within the private prison industry.

In order to guarantee the continuation of Reagan’s government privatization plan, Reagan and other conservatives developed a mutually beneficial relationship with lobbyist groups. Hoping to develop laws that would continue the era of mass incarcerations created by his War on Drugs, Reagan joined forces with The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative lobbyist group that works with private corporations to develop model legislation and propose bills based upon the needs of their client (“About ALEC”). President Reagan began his relationship with ALEC in 1981, when he assigned ALEC legislators to work on his Task Force on Federalism. These ALEC legislators came up with a comprehensive plan entitled “Reagan and the States,” that highlighted various methods of decentralizing government (“About ALEC”). From there ALEC went on to develop a Criminal Justice Task Force that worked directly with the two largest private prison companies, Corrections Corporations America and Wackenhut Corrections, to introduce laws that increased prison populations and company profits (Bender 6). Reagan developed a relationship with ALEC because the direct partnership between the private prison companies and legislators provided the private prison companies with an unfair advantage that ensured the growth and continuation of their industry. This growth ultimately benefited Reagan’s plan for privatization because it showcased the successes that the privatization of government services could achieve, which caused the public to support Reagan’s movement. By aligning himself with ALEC and providing private prison companies with an advantage in the legislative process, Reagan created a success story out of the private prison industry which helped him garner support for his privatization movement.

By strategically fostering a lasting relationship with ALEC, Reagan ensured the continuation of his privatization plan even after he left office. Since Reagan helped establish ALEC as a reputable lobbyist organization, many conservatives continued to utilize ALEC in their fight to grow the private prison industry. In 1995, conservative legislators on ALEC’s Criminal Justice Task Force worked with private prison companies to pass two influential Reaganesque sentencing reform bills: “Three Strikes” and “Truth in Sentencing” (Bender 6). Officially known as the “Habitual Offender or Three Strikes and You’re Out” laws, Three Strikes required mandatory life imprisonment after an individual’s third felony conviction (“Getting Tough” 21). ALEC legislators successfully proposed and passed this bill in 21 states, leading to an influx on long term prisoners entering private institutions (“Getting Tough” 21). Enacted in 25 states, the “Truth in Sentencing Act” guaranteed that inmates serve at least 85% of their recommended sentence before being released from prison or eligible for parole (Bender 6). Through their relationship with ALEC, conservatives were able to effectively increase the number of people entering jail and the average amount of time spent in jail, furthering the growth of the nation’s private prison industry. By passing these laws, Reagan’s plan to use the private prison industry as a success model for future privatization endeavors was made indestructible.

Through his calculated construction of the War on Drugs, Ronald Reagan initiated a wave of mass incarcerations that intentionally overloaded the existing penal system in order to increase the private prison industry. By exploiting the War on Drugs, Reagan devastated the prison system, which provided him with a concrete reason to begin privatization. This reasoning allowed Reagan to strengthen his pro-privatization argument, and continue the growth of the private prison industry. The growth of the private prison industry lasted long after Reagan left office with the help of conservative lobbying groups like ALEC, who helped perpetuate the cycle of mass incarcerations that plagues America. Over the course of the last several decades, America’s mass incarceration problem has grown to extreme highs. Due to the sentencing reform laws passed during Reagan’s War on Drugs, the United States is now holds the highest incarceration rate in the entire world (13th 0:01:02). This eye-opening feat has stemmed from decades of unethical practices, such as political lobbying groups with strong conflicts of interest, that unlawfully influenced the American criminal justice system. Due to former President Reagan’s growth of the private prison industry via the War on Drugs, America is faced with a growing risk of becoming a nation with an irreversible incarceration dependence.

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“Mass Incarceration Nation: The Truth Behind Reagan’s War on Drugs”