Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Private vs. Public Prisons

The trend in federal government spending has been to add more private contractors to the budget. According to this article, as of 2012, private contractor awards amounted to about 14% of the federal budget. That's a lot of cash for contract work. It is also double what was being spent on private contractors in 2000.

Between 2000 and 2008, deficits have ballooned far beyond anything previously seen. Even under Obama, deficits were high, but that was mainly because of a refusal on the right to let the Bush tax cuts expire. Now that they have expired, Congress is in a really big hurry to cut spending and bring the deficits down. Unfortunately, that effort, known as "sequestration", is going to take $110 billion out of the economy. Someone is going to get hurt and those private contractors don't want their cash cow to be taken away.

This raises an interesting question though. Is private enterprise more efficient than government at everything? The fact that we still have governments largely run by government employees should be enough of a clue. But when I see what my right-wing friends have to say about it, they seem to think that it would be better to leave just about everything to private enterprise since the government isn't competent enough to get the job done. Are private contractors more efficient at everything?

How about prisons? It is not discussed very much in the news, but a good chunk of American prisons these days are privately run by contractors. It is estimated that 37% of all prisoners are housed by private contractors. And get this, private contractors require minimum occupancy rates or the government pays for the empty beds. Turns out, we have the highest rate of incarceration than any other country in the world. Communist countries, eat your heart out.

Oh, yes, we also have the highest rate of recidivism in the world. Instead of focusing on crime prevention and rehabilitation, we are focused on deterrence and punishment, a policy decision almost certain to benefit private contractors and prison guard unions.  In contrast, Sweden, with publicly run prisons, is closing some detention facilities because the crime rate is dropping. Their policies focus on prevention, diversion and rehabilitation. Even Norway, one of the happiest places on earth, has very low recidivism rates with public prisons.

The American penchant for retribution has very dear costs in the form of an estimated 67% recidivism rate and the largest prison population in the world. Norway, which focuses on rehabilitation and treating criminals like humans, has a recidivism rate of 20% - with publicly owned and run prisons.

While its clear that our policy decisions have had poor results, I don't see any changes on the horizon, even as major news outlets have compared outcomes born by the American justice system to outcomes in other countries. Perhaps that's because private interests, with their foot in the door, don't want to lose those valuable contracts. But one only needs to look to the recidivism rate to see the profit motive in action.
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