There are some things that government–not the private sector–simply must do.
As I have written many times before, whether it makes sense to “contract out” the provision of government services is not an either-or question. The decision will depend upon a number of considerations: is this a core government responsibility? is it important to maintain institutional competence? does the government agency have the ability to adequately monitor contractors?
And especially–what are the negative consequences we might anticipate from a decision to grant governmental authority to private, for-profit enterprises?
The Justice Policy Institute has just released a report confirming a major concern voiced by critics of private prisons: the likelihood that those who profit from incarceration will lobby for harsher criminal justice penalties and seek to derail needed justice system reforms.
According to the report, private prison companies actively engage in lobbying intended to protect and grow their profits, by working for harsh policies and longer sentences.
The authors report that while the total number of people in prison increased less than 16 percent, the number of people held in private federal and state facilities increased by 120 and 33 percent, respectively. As ThinkProgress reports,
Government spending on corrections has soared since 1997 by 72 percent, up to $74 billion in 2007. And the private prison industry has raked in tremendous profits. Last year the two largest private prison companies — Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group — made over $2.9 billion in revenue.
JPI claims the private industry hasn’t merely responded to the nation’s incarceration woes, it has actively sought to create the market conditions (ie. more prisoners) necessary to expand its business.
According to JPI, the private prison industry uses three strategies to influence public policy: lobbying, direct campaign contributions, and networking. The three main companies have contributed $835,514 to federal candidates and over $6 million to state politicians. They have also spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on direct lobbying efforts. CCA has spent over $900,000 on federal lobbying and GEO spent anywhere from $120,000 to $199,992 in Florida alone during a short three-month span this year. Meanwhile, “the relationship between government officials and private prison companies has been part of the fabric of the industry from the start,” notes the report. The cofounder of CCA himself used to be the chairman of the Tennessee Republican Party.
One of the primary reasons governments exist is to provide for the public safety. Decisions about the most effective ways to accomplish that should be made on the basis of evidence, by disinterested policymakers carefully considering what the research tells us about the efficacy of various approaches.
The private prison industry is spending millions of dollars opposing efforts to reform the nation’s drug laws–reforms based upon years of research demonstrating that the Drug War has been a costly failure, and that imprisoning thousands of low-level offenders has been counter-productive.
Americans spend millions of dollars on the criminal justice system. Those dollars are supposed to make us safer–not make private interests richer.