Both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton have spotty histories when it comes to criminal justice reform. Hillary’s “superpredator” comment while campaigning for her husband’s disastrous crime bill has come back to haunt her campaign. Donald’s advertisement after the Central Park Jogger case was full of cringe-worthy references to “thugs” worthy of “execution” (especially cringe-worthy when the Donald still thinks they’re guilty after they were exonerated by DNA evidence). When staring at these sordid pasts, criminal justice reformers might put their hope into the Libertarian candidate. Gary Johnson, his red eyes winking at you from beneath heavy lids, pitches himself as the candidate of personal freedom. The 2,220,300 Americans in prison and 4,751,400 on parole might be willing to forget a few Cheech and Chong moments if it means a more compassionate criminal system. While he may be the most progressive in regards to marijuana, Johnson’s history as New Mexico’s governor show that his record is that of a politician, not some high-minded, principled crusader.
One of Johnson’s top selling points to disaffected millennials is his condemnation of the drug war. Johnson’s position on drugs, “Imagine [the Founding Fathers’] shock to learn that the government has decided it is appropriate to tell adults what they can put in their bodies”, created an echo of “right on” from dorm rooms across America. Anyone with a progressive interest in drug policy agrees that we should legalize marijuana. Johnson is selling a theoretical idea of liberty, but it’s important to note that Johnson is only interested in liberty if profitability is part of the equation. If it costs money to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, don’t expect him to follow his principles.
Johnson’s record on private prisons is the most abhorrent example of this. During his New Mexico gubernatorial campaign, Johnson campaigned on a platform of privatizing all state prisons. In his first budget, Johnson went to work doing just that, spending $91 million on private prisons. This did not go unnoticed by those receiving the money. Wackenhut Corrections, a private prison group, contributed $9,330 to Johnson’s reelection campaign after having been selected to run two New Mexico prisons.
In 2012, he wrote that privatizing prisons was one of his greatest achievements because it saved the state $20 a day per prisoner. Johnson touted that with these savings “We were able to provide the same services and still run the prisons”.
A survey of the prisons owned by Wackenhut Corrections, his campaign contributor, tells a different story. In 1999, Wackenhut’s Lea County prison had a fatal stabbing and a riot that injured 13 prisoners and a guard. In the same year at Wackenhut’s Guadalupe County facility, a prisoner was beaten to death with a bag of rocks. Not to be outdone, Guadalupe also had a riot of its own. It took 100 state prison guards and law enforcement agents to quell the 290 prisoners, but this was only after they set fire to multiple housing units and killed a prison guard. Despite all of this, Johnson opposed an independent study of prison conditions. If riots are the language of the unheard, why did two of them occur in prisons operated by the same company? And if it seemed that these prisons were increasingly dangerous, why did Johnson refuse to audit conditions in these prisons?
The answer is that Johnson prioritized fiscal policy over social responsibility. If you can save 20 dollars a day per prisoner, savings of 36,500,000 dollars a year across the state, what’s the issue if a couple of prisoners and guards die for lack of safe conditions? If it costs 200,000 dollars to study the safety of private prisons, and an untold amount more to fix whatever is wrong, why would you support funding the study in the first place? Johnson’s focus is not on liberty, or compassion, but on money.
In a 2016 Tumblr post (clearly targeted straight to millennials), Gary outlines how his approach to private prisons fits within his larger critique of criminal justice policy. He finds the argument that private prisons lead to an increase in prison populations totally false. He blames “public employees’ unions intent on keeping their jobs” for political and financial pressure to incarcerate more and more people. And yes- these public employee unions spend large amounts of money on lobbying (which likely goes to law and order politics). Still, private prisons have spent 10 million dollars on candidates and 25 million total on lobbying since 1989, including the money he received. If these shrewd businesses are able to cut costs for prisoners by a third, do you think that they would throw away that much money without some concrete fiscal gain? His pivot to blaming public employee unions is a smokescreen to distract from the ways that privatization of prisons led to an increase of roughly 100 incarcerated New Mexicans per 100,000 during his tenure.
Johnson then shifts his focus to those who argue that he should have used his executive powers to pardon drug prisoners. With his belief that marijuana should be legalized, and his focus on fiscal responsibility, this seems like a logical way to at least clear some of the least-dangerous drug prisoners out of jail and save a couple bucks. His response: it “was not a real-world option – and I operate in the real world.” This is from the candidate who believes in man-made climate change, but thinks that we should find a way to fix it with “regulations that protect us from real harm” that will also somehow not cost American jobs. How could a regulation that prevents climate change not cost jobs in the fossil-fuel sector? Real world politics is a code word for the politics of money, not the politics of high-minded principle that he uses to sell his campaign.
Johnson’s criminal justice policy is a financial policy. While he does value his theoretical points of view about freedom, he values the real world more. This is the real world of cutting corners on the most socially disadvantaged in our society, the real world of accepting political donations from private prison companies, and then refusing to study the safety of these prisons after multiple riots. The real world of money. He focused his criminal justice policy on profitability, not personal freedom or compassion for actual prisoners. Thus, it is not surprising that he was named the CEO of a marijuana company shortly after American public support for marijuana legalization reached over 50%.
If personal liberty is profitable, Gary Johnson is in. If it’s more profitable to lock an increasing amount of people up in dangerous private prisons, Gary is also in. You see, freedom is never really free.