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What Florida's prison privatization debate needs: a little less talk and a lot more analysis
Prison privatization is a hot topic in Florida this year due to sizeable shortfalls in the state budget. After years of uncontrolled spending and ballooning liabilities, the budgetary chickens have come to roost. State lawmakers started the year out in a hole as big as $3.5 billion according to some estimates, and they rightfully looked at the Department of Corrections (DC) for savings. The DC has a whopping $2.4 billion budget, making it Florida's largest agency. In light of these facts prison privatization has repeatedly surfaced as a potential solution - a very controversial one.
Florida legislators trying to weigh the costs and benefits of privatization, and any other potential cost cutting measure, have a difficult job on their hands because of a lack of objective analysis and a surplus of noise from interested parties. Much of the "analysis" comes from the loud and distracting voices of entrenched interests - mainly unions on one side and private prison companies on the other.
Even talk of cutting corrections budgets - much less privatizing the system outright - extracts grim warnings of doom and gloom from unions. For example, in 2010 when then governor-elect Rick Scott announced his economic plan that included big corrections cuts, Florida's law enforcement and corrections unions quickly rolled out the dark forecasts. Executive Director of the Florida Police Benevolent Association, David Murrell, warned, "The Department of Corrections has been cut and cut and cut and they're to a point where it's a safety issue...Mark my words, one of these days there's going to be a bad incident. It's gotten to that point where it's that critical." That's a scary position for a would-be budget cutter to be in - cut the budget and get blamed for any subsequent incident that happens in a prison. Regardless of the merit, the political threat is real.
Murell went on to say, "What will really be interesting is if he [Scott] persists into wanting to cut that kind of money and that would fly in the face of the general Republican philosophy of being tough on crime. I don't think I've ever met a Republican who wants to look soft on crime." Get that? More money = tough on crime. Less money = soft on crime. Pretty simple equation if you ask the unions.
If unions have an incentive to overstate the risk of cuts, private prison companies certainly have an incentive to overstate the benefits of privatization. The country's largest prison firm, Corrections Corporation of America, recently sent a proposal to 48 state governors (including Florida's) offering to buy up prisons from a $250 million pot of cash. CCA positioned the offer as a financial solution for cash-strapped states. But there was a catch. A state had to guarantee 90% occupancy rates. A corporation asking state governments to guarantee to keep their prisons at near full capacity seems far cry from an innocent cost cutting proposal. Such an arrangement, if accepted, would have far reaching ethical and criminal justice implications beyond budgetary issues. CCA maintains that their proposal would simply save states money and have no impact on efforts to pass sentencing reform - but that's hard to believe.
The ACLU, which is leading the public opposition to CCA's proposal, sent Florida's governor a letter warning that while there were a number of reasons to reject the prison giant's offer, it wouldn't save money in the long run anyway:
"While a prison sale might provide a short-term infusion of revenue, taxpayers in your state would be left paying for this short-term windfall until at least 2032. In short, this proposal to sell a valuable state asset is a backdoor invitation for your state to take on additional debt, while increasing CCA's profits."
Round and round we go. As long as some group stands to lose or gain from a policy (and there always will be), a litany of self-interested arguments will be put forth cloaked in the banner of the public good. What decision makers really need is objective analysis from disinterested parties - but such a thing seems hard to come by in today's political climate.
A major reason our prisons are bloated causing the inflated Department of Corrections budget is the overzealous charges and sentences handed down by our legal professionals. Examples are: two Life in Prison sentences for a purse snatching incident, another Life in Prison sentence for a $25 theft. These handed down by the same trial court judge.
posted by : Jack
Saturday, February 16, 2013 at 10:23 PM | Permalink