GOP Governors, High on Supply of Private Prison Money, Are Rejecting Marijuana Pardons

President Biden recently requested leniency for low-level marijuana offenders. The Republican governors who rejected that call are also getting big donations from private prison corporations.

GOP governors are rejecting cannabis pardons after receiving donations from the private prison industry. (Justin Sullivan / Getty Images)

Republican governors rejecting a new White House call to pardon low-level marijuana offenders have raked in big campaign donations from the private prison industry that has a financial interest in continuing the drug war.

Last Thursday, Joe Biden said he is “calling on governors to pardon simple state marijuana possession offenses.” In response, Republican governors Greg Abbott (TX), Bill Lee (TN), and Asa Hutchinson (AR) issued statements brushing off the request.

Those three governors have raked in more than $263,000 from donors linked to the private prison industry, which profits off tough-on-crime policies and incarceration. In all, the private prison industry has funneled more than $1 million into state elections in the last four years, mostly to Republicans.

Additionally, since 2020, two private prison giants alone — CoreCivic and the GEO Group — have dumped more than $1.7 million into the Republican Governors Association, which bankrolls GOP gubernatorial campaigns across the country. Meanwhile, the industry has spent more than $8.5 million on state lobbying in the last three years.

The dynamic hints at the next obstacle in efforts to reform the nation’s drug laws. As more state lawmakers face pressure to decriminalize or legalize marijuana, the prison industry, backed by campaign donations, could intensify its efforts to preserve drug-war policies that maintain current incarceration rates — and its profits.

The industry openly admits the connection between such policies and its revenues. For instance: CoreCivic’s most recent annual report notes that the company’s profits rely on harsh drug laws.

“The demand for our facilities and services could be adversely affected by the relaxation of enforcement efforts, the expansion of alternatives to incarceration and detention, leniency in conviction or parole standards and sentencing practices through the decriminalization of certain activities that are currently proscribed by criminal laws,” says the report. “Any changes with respect to drugs and controlled substances or illegal immigration could affect the number of persons arrested, convicted, and sentenced, thereby potentially reducing demand for correctional or detention facilities to house them.”

A large share of private prison industry donations have flowed to Republicans in Florida, where the GEO Group is based and where it has been awarded state contracts.

The industry has donated more than $1 million to Florida Republican Party committees, and another $269,000 to Florida governor Ron DeSantis (R), who has not commented on Biden’s pardon request.

Not all Republicans are opposing Biden’s reforms. Representatives Dave Joyce (R-OH) and Nancy Mace (R-SC) both praised the move, with the latter telling Fox Business: “I don’t always agree with the Biden administration, I’ve been very vocal about that, but this is a step in the right direction.”