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I got those empty prison cell blues

There’s a lot of excess prison capacity around the state, which is a big problem for a lot of communities that once thought building prisons, to be operated by private entities, would be a boon for them.

Just over a decade ago, prisons were a growth industry, and Texas was the undisputed king.

The state corrections system was the largest in the free world, brimming with more than 162,000 convicts at one point. County jails were adding new cells aplenty. And private prisons sprang up like mushrooms after a rainstorm, angling for contracts to hold thousands of illegal immigrants and convicts from other states.

But the prison crown has lost its luster, thanks to falling crime rates and new-found success in rehabilitation. There aren’t enough convicts to fill all the cells built by the state, counties and private contractors who thought the flow of inmates would never end.

The state corrections system now has more than 11,000 empty bunks. One state prison has closed, and two more are on the chopping block. County jails have more than 21,000 empty beds of their own. And those once-flourishing private lockups? Several stand empty, as do at least four of the six former state juvenile prisons that were shuttered two years ago.

Research by the American-Statesman shows that nearly two dozen county and private lockups are now vacant or almost so, as are thousands of bunks in state adult and juvenile prisons.

“The lesson to be learned is that we had a criminal justice system in Texas created to fill prisons, and now we don’t, because we figured out it was too expensive to lock everyone up,” said Terri Burke, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, which cautioned against the prison-building boom during the 1990s. “We built beds to stimulate economic development. That’s over.”

If you’ve been reading Grits for Breakfast, you know that this story isn’t really news, in the sense that the decision to build prisons basically on spec with public money for the benefit of private operators has been shown to be foolish in the extreme for some time now. It’s easy to see today why these decisions worked out so poorly, but even at the time it should have been more clear to more people that this was insane. I get that the cause of the sharp drop in the crime rate nationwide wasn’t well understood at the time a lot of these projects commenced. Crime may have been on the wane, but incarceration certainly wasn’t, not in Texas at least. I get how a lot of these small communities might have thought that building a prison in their town or county to house overflow inmates from Houston or Louisiana or wherever made sense, though perhaps a few of them might have spent more time wondering how many other small communities like them were making the same calculation, and what the upper limit of it all might be. But really, the idea of prisons as a growth industry offends me on such a fundamental level that it’s hard to even read this story. I can’t think of a better description of a society that’s doomed to fail than one in which prisons are a growth industry. I have a certain amount of sympathy for those communities that went down this failed path early on, but a lot less sympathy for those that made this mistake, or may yet make it, in more recent years, but I’m not the least bit unhappy by the overall trend. I hope it continues for many more years to come.

The HTA and the Times

The New York Times wrote an editorial about the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA). Unfortunately, they seem to have misunderstood what all the fuss is about.

As many parents, and ultimately manufacturers, learned the hard way, the Bush administration did not make the safety of toys and other products a priority. That led to the recall of millions of toys — some because of lead paint, others because of hazards such as small and powerful magnets that children swallowed. The Obama administration now has an opportunity to fill that regulatory gap by appointing new leadership for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Last year, Congress passed the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act, giving new authority and resources to a shockingly understaffed agency. The law has been described, accurately, as providing the safety net that consumers assumed they already had.

Unfortunately, the commission has yet to implement important aspects of the new law. The delay has caused confusion and allowed opponents to foment needless fears that the law could injure smaller enterprises like libraries, resale shops and handmade toy businesses.

One of those opponents is the Handmade Toy Alliance, which includes my cousin Jill, who makes her blogging debut with a response to that piece.

Our issue with the CPSIA has nothing to do with an inability to provide safe toys. It has to do with the inability to cost effectively prove that we have safe toys. We must also point out that this law is not just about toys, but rather all products intended for children aged 12 and under.

We must also take issue with the following statement, “The law provides ways to address such concerns without undercutting its new and vitally important protections against lead or other toxic substances in children’s products.” Unfortunately, the law does not address our concerns. We agree that it is vitally important to have protections in place to keep toxins out of our children’s environments. Many of our member businesses began their companies as a reaction to the toy recalls. They take extra care in researching the products they make and carry in their stores, and are completely involved in the production process. Rather than supporting these businesses, the law requests costly third party redundant testing that would effectively put thousands out of business. If large corporations are all that stand after this law is implemented as is, then who is truly served?

The stay of enforcement does not negate the lead limits or phthalate ban. In fact, the CPSC was quick to point out in their press releases that they do not have the authority to override the limits. Therefore, manufacturers still need to comply with the letter of the law.

She was a lot gentler with them than some other people, but I think she made her point just fine. Welcome to the blog world, Jill!

Handmade Toy Alliance wins a stay

Some good news from last week for the Handmade Toy Alliance – they got a one year reprieve on enforcement of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act.

Federal regulators on Friday postponed some testing requirements that would have forced many companies to pay ten of thousands of dollars to check children’s products for lead content, giving manufacturers and retailers a one-year reprieve.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission deferred the deadline, originally Feb. 10, by which manufacturers and importers of children’s goods needed to test every item to ensure it didn’t contain more than 600 parts per million of lead. They also have an extra year to test for phthalates, chemicals often used in plastic.


The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act was passed by Congress last year after dozens of toys were recalled. It called for manufacturers to test products by Feb. 10 and for retailers to dispose of products that had not been tested by that date.

The two-member commission voted to stay those requirements for a year, after toy makers, publishers and clothing manufacturers voiced their concerns. The commission had already clarified a portion of the law that could have forced thrift stores to dump all of their children’s clothing; the move in effect exempted them.

Also on Friday, Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) said he was planning to introduce legislation next week to exempt some small businesses from the law and require the commission to distribute a compliance guide, among other things.

The commission has been bombarded with thousands of calls, e-mails, letters and visits from people upset about the law, Martyak said. Reps. Henry A. Waxman (D-Beverly Hills) and Bobby L. Rush (D-Ill.) and Sens. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) also sent the commission a seven-page letter chastising it for the “great deal of confusion and misinformation” that had arisen over the law.

The industry is still waiting for guidance on whether toys and clothing made from natural materials will be exempted from the law entirely. And there are exceptions to the stay: Manufacturers still must test products for small parts that may break off, lead content in children’s jewelry and lead paint. They also must ensure that cribs conform to standards set by the law.

“It looks like a positive step, but there’s still a lot of legalese,” said Dan Marshall, founder of the Handmade Toy Alliance, which was created to inform small toy companies about the law and advocate for them.

You can see a copy of the stay order here (PDF). This is good news for the craftspeople, but it’s only a delay, not a resolution. If nothing happens, they’ll be in the same position in a year’s time. Congress has a lot of work to do this year, but I hope they make time for this as well.

One of the things that may perhaps come out of this experience is a better understanding of how laws intended to regulate big businesses need to take into account the way smaller businesses operate as well. This Business Week article discusses that, while this DC Examiner piece takes a more cynical look at the sausage-making process that led to all this. And finally, where there’s crime there’s defense attorneys, and so we have Mark Bennett examining the criminal liabilities under the CPSIA. May it never come to that for the HTA’s stakeholders.