Friday, August 24, 2007

CA Spreading Across the Nation

Reality dawning in CA as the availability of private prison beds either inside or outside the state offers reprieve for the prison population conundrum the state faces. We’ve talked here before about the nationalization of the prison crowding issue as CCA, Geo, and the other private vendors capitalize on the insistence of state policymakers that prisons are the only way to provide public safety (despite prisons’ really pretty poor record compared to other options). Construction costs drive so much of the debate in the short term (while maintenance and operations eat up the dollars long-term) that private providers taking on those short-term costs themselves can look very attractive to polarized and balled up state governments. The long-term budget problem with this isn’t just the maintenance and operations. It’s the likelihood that, once the private providers hit a threshold point of proportion of a state’s budget or availability of multiple buyers, they can raise prices on users without much recourse given the path they’ve chosen to take. And some states have found themselves bound by legislation to certain prices or increases and then out in the cold when a contract runs out and the private finds a higher bidder. Oops. Now where do we put these guys?

The story does a nice job of setting up what CA faces and other states have faced. It quotes a very misleading “conclusion” by the CCA spokesperson that private prisons have been shown more cost-effective. That’s true if you compare their new facilities against all DOC facilities, not comparable ones in longevity, size, types of inmates, etc. There have been some good studies of comparable provision that show that private and public are, on average, about the same. The difference is in their construction costs to the state. (Keep in mind that I’m not talking here about private providers of treatment, halfway houses, etc.) CA and thus other states have to face the fact that private prisons are their reality and everyone else’s for the future. Unless/until they are directly involved financially, they will be the chief impediment, good or bad, to adoption of the TECHNOCORRECTIONS “solutions” coming on line that can make serious dents in prison need in the near future. State policymakers just have to decide what their states’ balances and priorities are. My money is in private prison company stock.

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