Budget

Commentary: Jindal’s Prison Sale Proposal Highlights Issue of Criminal Justice Reform

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Discussion about Louisiana’s budget shortfall has consisted almost exclusively of dialogue on whether or not to raise taxes. This is an argument worth having, but it can obscure discussions of reform-based solutions. One such solution proposed by Governor Bobby Jindal is to sell the Allen Correctional Center and the Winn Correctional Center, potentially bringing the state $64 million in sales. Such a sale would be part of Gov. Jindal’s larger plan to reduce the size of state government by privatizing services and selling assets, in turn creating money to decrease the deficit.

While whittling down extraneous government is certainly preferable to raising taxes, state officials are skeptical of this proposition’s viability. State Treasurer John Kennedy, for example, likens the privatization of prisons for profit as a one-time fix or a stop-gap measure instead of a long-term solution. Likewise, state Senator John Alario, a recent convert to the Republican Party, questions whether the state would actually lose money in the long run by selling the prisons. According to Alario and Democrat State Senator Karen Carter Peterson, selling the prisons to private companies and then paying these companies to run them could be more expensive to taxpayers, as private providers could hike up prices while forcing the state to pay for maintenance costs.

While any such sale of the two correctional facilities seems unlikely given the opposition, it raises a bigger issue in regards to reforming the state’s budget and governing culture. State corrections systems, like most governmental services, have rapidly expanded over recent years in size and number, which in turn forces local governments to continually allocate expanding sums of tax dollars. In California for instance, incarceration can cost up to $50,000 a year per prisoner. Corrections as a whole is the second highest growing sector of state budgets, trailing only Medicaid.

Right On Crime, a project of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, advocates reforms to the American corrections system in accordance with conservative principles. Enjoying the support of Grover Norquist and Newt Gingrich, Right On Crime has emerged as one of the biggest proponents for reducing the criminal justice system’s burden on the taxpayer while increasing public safety.

Contradicting Senators Alario and Peterson, Right On Crime cites a study by the Reason Foundation which finds that private prisons can save up to 10 and 15% when compared to state-run correctional facilities. Furthermore, contractual incentives to lower recidivism rates could result in tangible societal benefits, as well. Other conservative solutions to resolving America’s prison gridlock (2.3 million Americans in prison, with federal prisons now 60% over capacity) include:

-Increased supervision alternatives such as probation and parole, with mandatory drug treatment and mental health counseling. According to Right On Crime, the daily prison cost on average is $79 per day, whereas probation costs $3.50 or less per day.

-Increased geriatric release programs when appropriate, which is especially necessary when considering health care costs associated with many older prisoners.

– Eliminating certain mandatory sentencing laws, which remove judicial discretion and can inadvertently place defendants that don’t need prison time in prison while giving unnecessarily lenient sentences to those who need prison time.

Regardless of the feasibility of Governor Jindal’s informal proposal, the idea of privatizing state prisons is one which demands a public dialogue, especially taking into consideration the fiscal dilemma of the state. The accelerated growth of imprisoned Americans has forced a growing burden on our state infrastructure and taxpayers while having limited impact on violent crime. Fiscally sound and prescient policies such as those advocated by Right On Crime may be necessary to ensure future peace and prosperity.

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