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Privatization presents large LA prison savings

Louisiana’s Department of Corrections might want to rethink its budgetary poormouthing strategy, especially when there exist realistic solutions to cuts costs that take only the political will to implement.

Last week, Secretary of Corrections Jimmy LeBlanc – the only holdover selected by Gov. John Bel Edwards to continue in the same cabinet job from former Gov. Bobby Jindaltestified to a House of Representatives panel that a projected cut of 10 percent in his department’s budget would lead to any or all of closing prisons, releasing prisoners early, or cutting across the board. He described the aftermath of this as potentially deleterious to both public safety and prisoners, calling it “dangerous.”

While policy-makers always should go alert in judging validity of information when hearing such drastic claims – LeBlanc threw out numbers such as releasing over 5,000 of the state’s over 37,000 incarcerated about equally distributed between state and local facilities and closing five of the state’s nine prisons to make up the roughly $65 million – even milder protestations would draw some deserved skepticism given the recent controversy over some suspicious personnel practices in DOC. Former Louisiana State Penitentiary head Burl Cain, a former business partner of LeBlanc’s, and one of his relatives engaged in wasteful, if not fraudulent, practices apparently legal only because of the exceptional laxness of internal DOC policies. Additionally, Cain will receive extensive retirement benefits that in a minor way would have alleviated the contemplated budget cut.

Reviewing the data also brings up questions about the options available and whether the draconian choices presented represent the genuine universe of policy prescriptions. From the beginning of Jindal’s terms through their end, the state’s prison population hardly changed, and during his second term fell about 10 percent which he anticipated by closing and consolidating prisons. Given the trend, perhaps closing another would not cause the dire consequences LeBlanc explicated.

(Interestingly, right at the beginning of the year as Edwards took office, DOC recorded the second-largest spike in incarcerations in its history, trailing only the Hurricane Katrina-induced influx from local jails in Aug., 2005. Whether this has any relation to Edwards’ campaign pledge during his term to reduce the jailed population by 10 percent and/or positioning the budget debate to dramatize cuts to DOC is not public knowledge.)

Yet another avenue of immediate cost savings not mentioned by LeBlanc presents itself – privatizing more Louisiana prisons. The average per prisoner daily cost at the five prisons with similar populations to the two facilities owned by the state but operated privately is about $57, but at the private prisons is just around $31.50. By privatizing these five, the state could save $76 million annually right there. (Alternatively, the state could house more prisoners in local jails at a cost of $24.39 daily for each, but capacity varies, transportation costs add more, and local jails do not have to offer the range of services that could promote reduced recidivism.)

Other policy alterations made by the Legislature also could cut costs. Laws could change to put more (non-violent, non-sex offense) offenders on probation and award parole earlier; supervision of these individuals costs barely over $2.50 a day. Certain (again, non-violent, non-sex offense) crimes also could have their terms of imprisonment reduced. These avenues might end up more tractable for enacting, given that legislators often look at prison privatizations as interfering with their abilities to promote themselves as patronage and jobs deliverers and the law would have to change to allow for more privatization.

Yet the larger point is several options exist well beyond the apocalyptic scenarios, likely inspired by Edwards’ strategy of cordoning off spending cuts to enable tax increases that permanently grow government, asserted by LeBlanc. It takes but the legislative will, putting the needs of the state and its taxpayers ahead of special interests and political ambition, to implement these rather than to fall for scare tactics.

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