Published in The Enterprise, 7-13-98

Reform, Not Privatization, is Needed For Our Corrections System

by Rocky Anderson

When our political leaders make a mess of public policy, with devastating results, what do they do?

Do they study the problems and attempt to solve them through effective, rational changes in public policy? Do they ask basic questions about how we got where we are, then alter their approach according to where we want or ought to be?

Unfortunately, too often, having failed to address public policy in a way that will serve everyone’s best interests, politicians simply declare government (for which they are largely responsible) a wasteful, pernicious enemy of the people – and then seek to further institutionalize disastrous public policy, sometimes through privatization. The theory: If a governmental program is ineffective, wasteful or contrary to the interests of most in the community, the solution lies not in reforming the program, but in turning it over to private, profit-motivated companies.

Utah’s criminal justice system is a mess. At a cost of approximately $35,000 to $40,000 a year for each inmate (when amortized costs of capital are included), our Legislature keeps enhancing penalties, under the misguided notion that “lock-’em-up-and-throw-away-the-key” is a principle supported by most Utahns. That sort of “thinking” has led us to the point where over one-third of our prison population has never – never – been convicted of a violent offense.

Why are we putting bad check writers, embezzlers, forgers and (believe it, because it’s true) shoplifters in prison? To continue putting more and more people behind bars, for longer and longer sentences, is contrary to everyone’s best interests. Victims are not receiving restitution from the offenders, as they would if community employment and restitution programs were utilized instead of prisons. Inmates are languishing in prison, most of them without adequate job and academic training, making them even less capable of leading constructive, law-abiding lives when they leave prison than when they entered. And taxpayers are getting hammered, with a Utah corrections budget that has spiraled skyward – more than 271% – over the past nine years. Even with all that expense, our high recidivism rates (70% of Utah’s inmates are back in prison within three years) have turned our prison gates into revolving doors.

The answer to our wasteful, anachronistic corrections system is not to just continue making the same dismal mistakes and turn the administration of the system over to profit-driven corporations – corporations that will have every reason to lobby for laws that will cause the incarceration of even more people. The answer will be found only in fundamental reform, resulting in lower incarceration rates through community restitution, employment and training programs for non-violent offenders. In order to serve the interests of victims, offenders, families of offenders, and taxpayers, our Legislature must reserve incarceration for those who have committed violent crimes and those who refuse to comply with alternative programs.

Imagine the savings we would all enjoy – and the benefits to the lives of thousands of people – if, for instance, we halted the incarceration of drug users and, instead, placed them in effective drug-rehabilitation programs, where they would be required to work, contribute to their families’ support, and pay for their room, board and treatment. Instead, what do so many politicians do, pandering to what they perceive the public is demanding? In the name of the failed “war on drugs,” they call for longer prison sentences.

Other than to avoid responsibility for enacting and implementing a rational, cost-effective public policy, can there be any good reason for turning over the operation of our prison facilities to private for-profit corporations? Of course, many politicians – playing to the growing disdain and distrust for government – pontificate about how private companies are so much more “efficient” than government. But do we see these same demagogues doing anything about the fundamental inefficiencies of our present public policy relating to how we deal with non-violent offenders? And, do we see any empirical evidence for their claims about the efficiencies of private corporations, particularly in the area of corrections?

Very simply, the evidence does not support privatization of prison facilities. In 1996, the General Accounting Office reported as follows:

  • GAO found that (1) five studies comparing operational costs or quality of service at private and public correctional facilities in California, Tennessee, Washington, Texas, and New Mexico had been completed since 1991; (2) it could not draw any conclusions about cost savings or quality of service, since the four studies that assessed operational costs indicated little difference or mixed results, and the two studies that addressed quality of life reported either equivocal findings or no differences between private and public facilities . . .

That is not exactly the type of data that compels an abdication of responsibility by our government in administering our prisons – and in formulating and implementing policies determining the treatment of those who offend against our laws.

Instead of considering the privatization of our prison system, our political leaders would better serve the interests of taxpayers, victims, local communities, and our state by providing for efficient alternatives to incarceration for non-violent offenders and effective programming for those who must be confined.