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Tina Casey headshot

New Questions About the Business of Mass Incarceration and Corporate Responsibility

Despite ongoing calls for criminal justice reform, more mass incarceration appears to be the goal of companies supporting California's Proposition 20.
By Tina Casey
Mass Incarceration

Public opinion has been shifting in favor of criminal justice reform, a trend that has gained renewed energy — and major corporate support — in recent months. In this context, it seems unlikely that leading corporations would support new law that potentially adds more prisoners to an already overcrowded system. Nevertheless, more mass incarceration appears to be the case with supporters of Proposition 20 in California.

Why does California need additional mass incarceration?

The Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 crisis have brought renewed attention to the issue of mass incarceration, including unsafe and unhealthy conditions in prisons, lack of medical care, and lack of educational and rehabilitative resources, along with the related issue of lost employment opportunities upon release.

In this context, Proposition 20 seems glaringly out of touch. The ballot initiative will essentially provide California voters with an opportunity to jail more people, by charging more accused criminals under categories that involve longer sentences and restrictions on early parole.

As described by journalist Judd Legum of the independent news site Popular Information, Proposition 20 is a rollback of several reforms passed in California between 2011 and 2016.

These reforms took place after a long legal battle over the prison population in California came to a head at the United States Supreme Court in 2011. The California prison population at the time numbered 156,000 inmates, but the state’s jails were only designed to hold 85,000 inmates.

With the help of other previous reforms, after 2011 there was a significant decline in overcrowding within the California state prison system. However, the system has continued to operate well above capacity.

Legum cites the figure of 134.3 percent over capacity as of February 2020. That is certainly an improvement from nine years ago, but it is dangerously close to a court-ordered cap of 137.5 percent.

In addition, the reforms have caused a ripple impact on the jail systems across California’s 58 counties.

The series of reforms have reduced the inmate population in county jails collectively. However, on an individual basis many of the state’s county jails were still overcrowded as of last year. The problem is compounded because county jails — and the services they provide — are generally designed for relatively short stays. By “realigning” state inmates to the county level, the series of reforms has resulted in longer stays at county jails.

In addition, another part of the solution to overcrowding at the state level has involved incarcerating some inmates in private jails, both in California and in other states.

In short, while the reforms shifted inmates around, the issue of mass incarceration was never addressed fully or holistically.

Who wants to build new prisons in California?

Against this backdrop, Proposition 20 seems especially out of place. It would create additional burdens on a system that has been only partly solved its problems.

Nevertheless, Legum reports that Proposition 20 has received financial backing from subsidiaries of several major corporations, including at least two — Albertsons and Kroger — that have provided significant financial support for social justice organizations in the wake of the George Floyd murder.

On June 10, for example, Albertsons announced that it would donate $5 million to social justice causes.

Kroger also earmarked $5 million within its Kroger Co. Foundation for social justice causes.

We must use our voice to express that we are against racism and injustice against the black community. We can and we must do better as a company, community and company to become a greater part of the solution,” said Kroger Chairman and CEO Rodney McMullen in a social media video message.

Nevertheless, according to Legum’s research, Ralph’s (a subsidiary of Kroger) and Safeway (a subsidiary of Albertsons) have joined with Costco to provide $300,000 in financial support for Proposition 20, a measure that would disproportionately impact Black people and other communities of color in California.

Costco’s support for Proposition 20 is all the more ironic considering that on June 11, CEO and President Craig Jelinek posted a public message to employees in the wake of the George Floyd murder, reminding them that Costco remains “committed to taking care of our employees, building a diverse workforce, maintaining work environments that are free from discrimination and harassment, and treating each other in a fair, honest, respectful and inclusive way.”

Barely one month later, though, Costco has received a torrent of criticism for reportedly banning “Black Lives Matter” face masks among its employees.

Brand reputation judged by the company you keep

Corporate supporters of Proposition 20 also entangle their brand reputation with the proposal’s chief promotor, Democratic State Assemblyman Jim Cooper, a former “tough on crime” deputy sheriff who has garnered a reputation for “propping up mass incarceration and fighting change” while also alienating himself from the state Legislative Black Caucus.

Cooper’s numerous critics include the progressive nonprofit organization Courage California, which awarded him a lowly 17 out of 100 on its 2019 “courage score.”

Courage California is emerging as a powerful counterbalance to Cooper’s array of backers in law enforcement, bail bonds, and other services related to incarceration.

The organization currently lists 1.4 million members. It also coordinates with 300 organizations through its California Progressive Convenings initiative, and it is a state partner of the ProgressNow network.

If supermarkets are being targeted by organized retail crime rings in California, working with progressive groups on social justice reforms — including hiring former inmates and supporting inclusive hiring practices — would seem to be a more efficient way to resolve the loss problem and preserve brand reputation, rather than simply creating more criminals through an already overburdened and unjust system of mass incarceration.

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Image credit: Erika Wittlieb/Pixabay

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

Read more stories by Tina Casey