There’s widespread agreement that the American criminal justice system is broken. While organizations across the political spectrum advocate for reforms to reduce correctional spending and recidivism, Florida policymakers are sticking their necks out in efforts to actually implement it. Before dismissing reformers as Pollyannas, it’s important to remember that change is never easy and anything worth doing will draw scrutiny.
Over the last few weeks all eyes were glued on the legislature’s debate over privatizing prison operations across South Florida, which lawmakers ultimately abandoned after voting 21-19 to defeat Senate Bill 2038. Similar efforts to reform Florida’s correctional healthcare system have largely gone unheralded and now they’re in jeopardy.
Last year, the prison privatization effort was moving forward until a public employee union stopped it with a lawsuit, ultimately upheld by a circuit court judge, related not to the initiative itself but rather its passage as a budget proviso instead of a stand-alone bill. Now the issue is back in the legislature with an uncertain future.
Unfortunately for taxpayers, another union is opening that playbook, trying to ground a sensible search for budget savings before it launches. In this case, the Florida Nurses Association recently filed a similar lawsuit in the Leon County Circuit Court hoping to stop the privatization of correctional health services for the state’s 100,000-inmate system.
The appeal of the legislature’s correctional healthcare reform effort is simple: private companies that compete to provide medical and mental health services to inmates can save the state money, provide high quality care, and give policymakers more accurate understanding of what it costs to run the state’s correctional system. In other words, competition disrupts an otherwise stagnant bureaucracy to find better ways to do things.
Like the larger prison privatization effort, the core governmental functions of writing and enforcing the laws would remain in public hands, and public oversight over correctional healthcare will stay in place too. Meaningful cost savings and service improvements will finally be possible when the private sector is allowed to compete for the ability to deliver day-to-day correctional healthcare duties under strong public oversight.
Critics of this approach claim Florida can’t improve its correctional system by partnering with companies that seek to bring best practices, improved healthcare outcomes, and make a profit at the same time. In short: they don’t trust the private sector.
These fears are misguided. States like Indiana, Illinois, Vermont and New Mexico already reap the benefits from extensive use of private healthcare delivery in their state prison systems, and states like Arizona and North Carolina are currently considering reforms similar to Florida’s. For decades for-profit companies and nonprofit organizations have partnered with government corrections agencies to provide a full spectrum of healthcare for offenders, including medical, mental health, dental and other services.
Government officials around the world are partnering with the private sector because it works. By abandoning the single-provider government service model, and embracing competition, policymakers have witnessed improvements in both cost savings and quality of service. Indiana, for example, has saved tens of millions of dollars in correctional healthcare costs through privatization, and corrections officials there have used privatization to lower food service costs by nearly one third.
Critics also claim that privatization would unfairly come at the expense of public employees. This couldn’t be further from the truth. In privatization initiatives, companies routinely offer public employees an opportunity to stay on with the new private sector partner with comparable pay and solid, albeit less lavish, benefits. Those not retained by the contractor tend to shift to other state government jobs, enter state workforce training programs, or take early retirement.
Improving Florida’s correctional system is a daunting challenge and no one action can accomplish this goal. However, policymakers have already taken the first step by encouraging a culture of reform. Allowing private companies to partner in providing correctional healthcare is a common sense solution that’s as symbolically significant as it is substantive. The state Department of Corrections is exploring sensible new ways of doing the public’s work, something that should be encouraged, not stifled.
Harris Kenny is a policy analyst at Reason Foundation (reason.org), a nonpartisan Los Angeles-based think tank.