June 27, 2012

The Vestiges Remain

A few weeks ago I wrote a review of a book, Slavery By Another Name, that makes the persuasive case that slavery in the United States extended well past its official abolition after the Civil War, in the form of a criminal justice system that imprisoned black men on trumped up charges and then rented them out to local businesses as excessively cheap labor. One aspect of the system that kept it rolling was that the county sheriffs who had control of most of those inmates had financial incentives to rent them out and pay next to nothing for their care and feeding.

Those kinds of odd financial arrangements that provided a motivation for state officials to do wrong have a long history in the United States. For example, in Georgia at one time the low-level judges who issued search warrants had only one means of getting paid – issuing warrants ($5 a pop). Obviously, this created a financial incentive for those judges to issue warrants, regardless of whether they were supported by probable cause. In Connally v. Georgia, the Supreme Court held that such system was unconstitutional, as it violated the Fourth Amendment’s requirement for a neutral, detached magistrate to issue such warrants. In doing so, it relied on earlier cases reaching similar results for cases where the judge was only paid if the defendant was convicted and fined and where a mayor, doubling as a traffic court judge, imposed fines upon conviction that went to the town coffers.

Given the sad history laid out in Slavery By Another Name and repeated decisions from the Supreme Court about the dangers of mixing financial motives with law enforcement, you’d think such incentives would be a thing of the past. You’d be wrong:
It took almost three quarters of a century, but one Sheriff in Alabama is finally speaking out against a 1939 law that allows for the state’s 67 sheriffs to keep leftover money the state provides to each municipality for feeding inmates in local prisons.

Sheriff Mike Rainey reportedly received $295,294 from the local, state and federal governments to spend on food for the county’s inmate population. But thanks to the old law, Rainey is entitled to pocket any money left over after he fulfills his responsibility of feeding his inmates.
It’s worth noting that Alabama was pretty much ground zero for much of Slavery By Another Name, so no surprise that the system has held on there for so long. But at least Rainey seems to view his charges as something kind of like human:
Rainey also has ordered the jail to serve healthy, fresh food to inmates.

‘Incarceration is punishment. I know some people think you shouldn’t worry about what an inmate eats, but I think it’s a moral issue,’ Rainey said. ‘They’re not getting filet mignon, but they’re certainly not being served green bologna, nor will they be served something like that.’
Wow, what an enlightened attitude. And he’s a Republican. Credit where credit is due. He’s pushing for the law to change, but prior attempts have stalled, so we’ll see.

What’s really pathetic about the whole thing is figuring out how anybody ever ended up with excess funds in this situation:
The state provides sheriffs with $1.75 per day to feed each inmate. The federal government funds inmates housed in state facilities at $3 per day.

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