The Denver City Council recently announced it planned to end “halfway house” contracts with two private prison companies due to the companies’ participation in contracts with ICE, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency. The move comes despite city officials stating that ending the contracts would result in over 500 area residents returning to jails and prisons. When pressed about how Denver would fill the void left by the private partners, city leaders have only offered wishful thinking.
The series of moves amounts to shooting oneself in the foot twice: Once by ending the longer-term contracts without any backup plan for in-house or alternate contracting arrangements and then again by ending up replacing the long-term contracts with shorter-term contracts with the very same companies.
Private prison companies remain a primary target for many well-intentioned criminal justice reform advocates who subscribe to a narrative that attributes far more power to private corrections companies than they actually wield. As deeper analysis shows, lawmakers, prosecutors, police, and public prison guard unions bear far more responsibility for the most punitive and degrading aspects of the American criminal justice system than do private prisons.
The War on Drugs along with decades of a “tough on crime” mentality and its string of failed criminal justice policies—mandatory minimum sentencing requirements, overly harsh sentences, three-strikes laws, asset forfeiture, and the like—are far more responsible for America’s ridiculous mass incarceration rates.
Those programs were highly popular among politicians and the government agencies and officials who work in criminal justice and corrections. For example, public sector prison guard unions were considered to be one of the most instrumental groups that worked to get California’s “Three Strikes” law, which passed in 1993 and is the type of law that dramatically increased prison populations. Similarly, until quite recently, politicians and prosecutorial discretion have often combined to produce longer prison sentences and greater criminalization of activities across the country.
With ICE, the situation presents a similar story. Former President George W. Bush and Congress created ICE in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and gave the agency broad powers to detain individuals suspected of entering the country illegally. Today, ICE contracts with private prison companies GEO and CoreCivic to perform functions the agency doesn’t handle itself, including managing detention facilities themselves and providing detainee transport between facilities, according to highly-specified contracts written by ICE and agreed to by the private prison companies. The private companies do not set ICE’s policies and don’t participate in the ICE activities that have made headlines in recent times, including the horrific raids of businesses across the country to round up individuals trying to support themselves and their families. Nor are private corrections companies responsible for ICE and the Trump administration’s immigration policy of separating children from their families—the federal government does all of that.
So, if Denver ends halfway house contracts, will ICE change its actions? No. Will ending the contract impact the Trump administration’s family separation policy? No.
If Denver’s looking to make a statement about ICE, it should target the agency directly. Private prison companies have no bearing on ICE’s practices. Punishing contractors for laws, policies, and procedures far beyond their control is, at best, a symbolic gesture that has no positive impact in improving immigration practices or ending family separations. The federal government is the place to make such changes.
But when any government contract gets canceled unexpectedly without any sort of plan for a backup provider (government or private), the resulting uncertainties hurt the individuals for whom the services are provided in the first place the most. With halfway houses and corrections contracts, those individuals are the people living in them and trying to fully return to society.
As Theresa Marchetta, a spokesperson for Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, told the Denver Post after the first vote to end the long-term contracts, “As a result of council’s decision, more than 500 individuals in need of a second chance are at risk of being placed back in prison, hindering their rehabilitation and further burdening our jails and prisons.”
Even Councilmember Candi Lee CdeBaca, who led Denver’s campaign to not renew the contracts in the first place, supported the city deciding to re-enter into shorter-term contracts with the same two companies to perform the same services until the city or some non-ICE-contracting entity is ready to take over providing the services.
Ending these contracts makes even less sense now that we know Denver’s solution was to simply to enter shorter-term contracts with the exact same companies.
Long-term contracts enable the companies to make greater commitments to fulfilling them, which can include larger investments in upgrading equipment and physical spaces, but also job skills training, educational programs, and other efforts to prepare individuals for fully reintegrating into society. The longer the time horizon of a contract, the greater ability companies have to test approaches to see what works best. In contrast, short, year-by-year contracts give little opportunity or reason for companies to invest in what may be costly improvements to facilities or to services provided.
Thankfully, the short-term contracts being approved mean the people currently in halfway houses aren’t going to be needlessly sent back to prison due to the city council’s actions.
Now, if Denver wants to make meaningful criminal justice reforms it should work with companies to develop the right incentives that require contractors to reduce recidivism and then monitor those contracts to ensure contractors live up to their agreements. The city council’s focus should be on helping people get the skills and training they need to successfully re-enter society and stay out of jail rather than its focus on whose name is on the facilities.