As Florida grapples with a potential $2 billion budget shortfall, the debate over prison privatization shows just how hard it can be to reform government.
The Senate is proposing to privatize most correctional facilities within an 18-county region of South Florida to improve the performance of the corrections system and cut at least $16 million a year from the budget. The privatization plan wouldn't move forward unless the state realizes an annual savings of at least seven percent. In recent legislative hearings, the Department of Management Services testified that Florida's current private prison contracts save taxpayers between 10 and 27 percent compared to state-run prisons, well over the seven percent threshold.
Florida's corrections department would continue to own its prisons and retain full oversight and control over all inmates in the system. The government would establish the standards and the private prisons would have to meet them. If they don’t, they'll be fired. That is infinitely more accountability than a system that allows government-run prisons to police themselves.
There have been concerns that prison privatization would cause thousands of state employees to be laid off, hurting the slowly recovering economy. In reality, the Senate proposal requires private prisons to give current state employees priority in the hiring process, and those not hired would be eligible to fill other open state prison jobs.
But with the debate focused on protecting state employees, the bigger picture is being lost. What sets this prison proposal apart is not its scale, but its ambition, which is to tackle some major systemic obstacles to recidivism reduction. It represents an evolution in correctional privatization. While typical corrections contracts set performance standards in safety and security, Florida's contract would go further by holding the contractor accountable for reducing recidivism and expanding treatment and rehabilitation programs.
Florida's corrections system is currently a disjointed collection of facilities and services. As offenders move throughout the system, no one is accountable for making sure they are ready to re-enter the world, and there is minimal focus on their rehabilitation progress. This yields little accountability and poor results in offender rehabilitation, with recidivism a persistent challenge.
The privatization proposal would coordinate and link inmate evaluations, rehab programs, educational programs, and other resources across all facilities and levels of care. Florida's proposal would hold vendors accountable on a wide set of mandatory performance criteria, including measures on educational achievement, substance abuse treatment and the percentage of inmates successfully completing rehabilitation or support programs without returning to prison upon release. So, while privatization opponents wrongly claim that the private sector is only interested in filling prison beds with more inmates, the contract would actually give private prisons a financial incentive to educate and rehabilitate offenders so they don't return to prison.
The Florida proposal is also consistent with global innovations, including the United Kingdom's recent criminal justice reforms. Last year the U.K. government announced three new prison management contracts estimated to save over $350 million (USD) over the next several years, with one representing the first of several pilot projects for a "payment by results" approach. In this contract, 10 percent of the vendor's payment will depend on lowering the reconviction rates of released offenders by at least five percentage points.
Like Florida’s proposal, the U.K.'s approach aims to align the private sector's financial incentives with government's goals of maintaining public safety, reducing recidivism, improving rehabilitation and lowering costs. And both initiatives use privatization as a means of reorienting corrections away from a central focus on incarceration, instead emphasizing rehabilitation, performance and maximizing offenders' chances for a successful return to society.
Hopefully, Florida policymakers will look past the political hype and consider the Senate's proposal on its merits. The prison plan is an opportunity to reform government, give parolees and those who have served their time a superior chance at a better life, and will save taxpayer money over the short- and long-term.
Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform and Adrian Moore, Ph.D. is vice president of policy at Reason Foundation (reason.org).