Saturday, October 24, 2009

Privatizing Death Row

File this under "Really Bad Ideas."

Arizona May Turn Death Row Over to Private Companies:

[...] In a first in the criminal justice world, [Arizona's] death row inmates could become the responsibility of a private company.

State officials will soon seek bids from private companies for 9 of the state’s 10 prison complexes that house roughly 40,000 inmates, including the 127 here on death row. It is the first effort by a state to put its entire prison system under private control.

The privatization effort, both in its breadth and its financial goals, demonstrates what states around the country — broke, desperate and often overburdened with prisoners and their associated costs — are willing to do to balance the books. Arizona officials hope the effort will put a $100 million dent in the state’s roughly $2 billion budget shortfall.
So letting out non-violent, penny-ante criminals (who make up most of our incarcerated) to save a buck is out of the question? Or raising new streams of revenue to pay for it? Let's instead turn over the most violent criminals in Arizona to publicly traded companies on the New York Stock Exchange?
Private prison companies generally build facilities for a state, then charge them per prisoner to run them. But under the Arizona legislation, a vendor would pay $100 million up front to operate one or more prison complexes. Assuming the company could operate the prisons more cheaply or efficiently than the state, any savings would be equally divided between the state and the private firm.
Assuming there are any "savings." Several states and the federal GAO have noted the "hidden costs" of privatization usually end up costing states more than the initial contracts (the costs of monitoring private facilities alone can offset any savings).

And if there is actually money left over, it usually goes to the company and its stockholders, not back to the citizens in the form of a refund. Remember economics 101: private companies (even those that run prisons) exist for one reason only, and that is to make a profit.
The privatization move has raised questions — including among some people who work for private prison companies — about the private sector’s ability to handle the state’s most hardened criminals. While executions would still be performed by the state, officials said, the Department of Corrections would relinquish all other day-to-day operations to the private operator and pay a per-diem fee for each prisoner.

James Austin, a co-author of a Department of Justice study in 2001 on prison privatization and president of the JFA Institute, a corrections consulting firm, said private companies tended to oversee minimum- and medium-security inmates and had little experience with the most dangerous prisoners.

As tough sentencing laws and the ensuing increase in prisoners began to press on state resources in the 1980s, private prison companies attracted some states with promises of lower costs. The private prison boom lasted into the 1990s. Throughout the years, there have been high-profile riots, escapes and other violent incidents. The companies also do not generally provide the same wages and benefits as states, which has resulted in resistance from unions and concerns that the private prisons attract less-qualified workers..
That's what makes Arizona's proposal so unique and possibly dangerous. If private companies can't stop "escapes, riots and other violent incidents" among medium or minimum security inmates, aren't Arizona lawmakers potentially compromising public safety by putting private companies in charge of death row? The article even quotes employees of some private companies who are skeptical.

In pure financial terms, it is not clear how well the state would make out with the privatization. The 2001 study for the Department of Justice found that private prisons saved most states little money (there has been no equivalent study since). Indeed, many states, struggling to keep up with the cost of corrections, have closed prisons when possible, and sought changes in sentencing to reduce crowding in the last two years.

Again, those are viable options, but not politically popular. No one wins elections running on platforms of "I'm for closing prisons and reducing sentences."

As with all issues related to privatization and criminal justice (probation, bail/bond, substance abuse treatment, etc.), this is just part of the ongoing transfer of public monies to the private sector under the guise of "savings" for the taxpayers. That the Great Recession would be used as an excuse to justify this is even more depressing.

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