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Privatization can lead way to reduced incarceration

A new report adds impetus to the idea that Louisiana can save money by rearranging resources in correctional policy.

Last week my column for The Advocate noted how greater reliance upon private operation of state prisons could save the state money, contrary to the budgetary decision this year that cut reimbursement to private operators. By doing that, those operators need no longer provide rehabilitative and treatment programs, on par with local facilities holding state prisoners that receive the same $24.39 per day per inmate. About half of all state prisoners at any given time serve time in a local facility, but fewer than half of those institutions provide this kind of programming standard in state lockups.

The value of such programs a recent audit from the Louisiana Legislative Auditor emphasized, which said that a comparative study with other states showed increased usage of these could save an unknown amount of money by reducing recidivism generally, but specifically an expanded re-entry program would save $14 million annually. Currently the state pays for nine regional centers to provide the 100-hour course as well as funding other for some other local initiatives.

By saving money through expanded private prison management, the Department of Corrections wins two ways. It can use savings to divert funding to these kinds of programs and also repatriate some offenders from local jails, securing them access to the existing programs at state institutions while in addition cutting down on transfer costs and the disruptions to completing these programs faced by prisoners; some find themselves moved around so much that even if they have access to a program at a local prison they get shuttled away before completion, so more stability would bring more successful finishing of courses.

At present, state institutions operate at capacity. But other audit recommendations of sentencing changes, increased use of supervision outside of incarceration, and potentially utilizing more diversionary strategies would decrease the population locked up. In concert with privatizing more prisons where this would allow pumping up their daily rates to a level where operators could offer these kinds of programs, a smaller incarcerated population would allow for housing of more convicts that could benefit from these in state facilities. The remainder could serve in local jails that provide the same services now so, unlike presently, every state convict would have access to these services.

Of course, that means that a number of sheriffs who run facilities that do not provide such services yet making their offices money would lose the revenues these warm bodies bring, which means they would fight tooth-and-nail against this. In the absence of reforms that result in fewer imprisonments, concerning the non-provision of these programs the auditor notes that in order to encourage future provision Corrections contemplates a graduated per diem structure. But if implementing that consists of decreasing the current rate, taking state prisoners may become cost-ineffective for some local jails and the system loses beds. By squeezing money out through increased privatization, raising rates above the minimum $24.39 for local program adopters doesn’t lose space for state inmates.

The audit’s recommendations receive real-world experiential confirmation and deserve close scrutiny by policy-makers. They promise better corrections results at lower costs and become amplified when combined with privatization. Given political forces that would resist such changes because demand for prison space would causes decrease of sheriffs’ inmate censuses and thus revenues, the path of least resistance would be triggering savings from privatization that then could provide services for more in the larger prison population than that envisioned under the reforms. With the decreased recidivism that would result, the overall state inmate census organically would dwindle, and then any successful political efforts to enact reforms would compound the beneficial trend.

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