Taxpayer resources and Gov. Bobby Jindal’s political fortunes both receive a boost if Louisiana would just follow its own people’s advice regarding correctional policy.
As the state stares down an upcoming year of severe budget difficulty, among other things Jindal has suggested the sale of prisons, with his administration specifically citing the Allen and Winn Correctional Centers, in order to raise money, $64 million it predicts in these two cases. Consequently, two separate but related criticisms have emerged of the idea. One, among others voiced by Treasurer John Kennedy, is that an asset sale does not provide a long-term solution to budgetary pressures, with the implication that the state would have to find access to a similar kind of asset in the future. The other, articulated by state Sen. John Alario among others, is that without ownership of the asset the state may have insufficient control over its use to implement state policy without potentially higher costs than if owned.
These concerns reflect some truth. If Louisiana sold the prisons and found real need to house prisoners, in order to bid for services to do so it might end up paying more in contract costs than it does now through the alternative strategies of owning and operating its own or finding a lower-cost operator of sufficient quality (both Allen and Winn are owned by the state but have operations contracted out). Yet combining the privatization strategy with more innovative correctional techniques can moot these concerns.
Department of Corrections Secretary Jimmy LeBlanc has recommended a number of measures to divert less dangerous inmates from prison residence – ironically, getting support from Alario. He argues that technology, such as electronic monitoring, or release of inmates that cannot threaten safety, such as medical parole, can reduce significantly the inmate population and drive costs down.
It bears remembering there are several facets to the idea of incarceration that often get lumped together. One reason, appropriate for the most dangerous prisoners who have demonstrated they threaten society, is to keep them away from society to prevent harming its members. However another, which applies to all convicted of all but lesser crimes, is punishment/deterrence from the loss of liberty by that miscreant for some period of time. If that loss of liberty can be largely replicated without having to put somebody into a secure institution at reduced cost, that’s a solution the state should pursue.
By doing so, a significant portion of the inmate population could be reduced to the point that the state may have no critical need for Allen and Winn. Thus, it could afford to sell off these slack resources to aid the taxpayer – and then have the bonus of economic development as these facilities continue to operate using prisoners from other jurisdictions without the Louisiana taxpayer footing the bill.
That aspect of the arrangement highlights what generally lurks as the primary but not admitted reason that some elected officials oppose prison privatization – the loss of state jobs and jobs as a whole. As research has demonstrated private operators run prisons more efficiently, fewer personnel are needed thereby concerning legislators, especially from that area, who equate more jobs from whatever sources as better for their chances of reelection. More generally, from an ideological perspective, others oppose privatization simply because it reduces the size of state government, and thus the control it has over the citizenry and the ability for policy-makers to take credit in provision of things to the people.
But at the same time, particularly these ideological opponents often carp that the state imprisons too many people, imagining them to be victims of circumstance or too harshly treated given their positions in life and larger society. Were Jindal to announce prison sales combined with savings from changes in incarceration practices, he would neatly undercut many protests to this privatization by pointing out he’s giving them what they want in one policy area that builds a more compelling case for his in another. How could they complain if fewer people go to prison that therefore there’s a pressing need for the state to own so many facilities?
And Jindal should go one step further. Only Allen and Winn are serviced under contracting, beginning with their startups in the early 1990s. Several years later, a highly-regarded study by criminal justice professors at Louisiana State University Baton Rouge showed savings of about 15 percent in their operations compared to the similar state-run Avoyelles Correctional Center, and quality assurance as good if not better. Yet in the intervening 15 years no other state prisons have been let out for private operation. While the study indicates not all prisons should be privatized in this way, surely a few more could be, at considerable savings of perhaps $100 million annually.
By adding to his prison sale plan even more contracting and alternatives to incarceration, not only could Jindal carve out perhaps $200 million in annual savings, or a reduction of the DOC budget by 30 percent, plus the one-time sales proceeds (which after following constitutional requirements would mean little towards the current operating budget), he could render impotent the noisy opposition to the sale plan specifically and dilute it for privatization as a whole. Besides freeing up crucial resources for other pressing priorities, the good marks Jindal gets in trying to make government run more efficiently will improve even more if he makes this sound budgetary and political move.
Posted by Jeff Sadow at 10:20