Last week, there was a fair amount of publicity about a study issued by the Justice Policy Institute that found—drum roll, please–that private prison operators lobby for more stringent criminal laws.
In other news, the sun rose in the east yesterday.
There are certainly instances in which government outsourcing makes sense, but operating prisons is not one of them. As many observers of what I call “privatization ideology” warned when the first private prisons began operating, incarceration for profit is simply untenable: the incentives involved are inconsistent with good public management. Prisons aren’t businesses, and they cannot and should not be run as businesses.
When a company’s profits depend upon jailing more people for longer periods, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that those companies will lobby for ever-more draconian laws and extended sentences. If that lobbying is successful, it will cost taxpayers much more than they saved by outsourcing (assuming the much-touted savings are real to begin with.)
It isn’t just prison outsourcing that threatens to distort policy-making. The United States no longer has a military draft, and we currently have more “contractors” in Iraq and Afghanistan than we do citizen-soldiers. As I pointed out in a paper several years ago, in the wake of the Abu Ghraib scandal, there are significant moral, legal and strategic problems that arise when governments essentially hire mercenaries to do their dirty work. For one thing, it is far easier to opt for a military “solution” to a problem when the Congressman casting the vote can simply “hire” soldiers, and doesn’t have to go home to his district and justify drafting his constituents. For another, the multi-national companies that provide the “soldiers for hire” have a vested economic interest in military combat.
Private prison operators lobby for stricter sentencing. Does anyone really believe that private companies providing combat services won’t lobby for war?