Sept. 23, 2011
While headlines in 13 other states read, "State reduces prison capacity," the headline in Arizona will soon say, "State awarding bids to private prisons for 5,000 new beds."
As a conservative Republican, I support the privatization of many government services: in schools, where the consumers of the product are its purchasers; in construction, where the project is open to public scrutiny; in maintenance, where performance can be observed or measured. In each of these cases, the provider's goal of a profit is subject to the forces of the competitive marketplace.
With private prisons, however, the consumers of the product (the inmates) have no say in its quality. The free market is not in play. They cannot take their business and go elsewhere.
The goal of the private prison - profit - is antithetical to the goals of the state: incarceration, rehabilitation and the reduction of recidivism. In fact, the less rehabilitation, the more recidivism, the greater numbers to be incarcerated, the better for the private-prison industry's bottom line.
Inherent in the argument to use private prisons is the claim that they operate more cost-effectively than state-run institutions. Studies have not shown this to be true.
Nor does the state's experience last summer in Kingman, when three dangerous prisoners escaped, suggest that they are more secure.
The exact amount of the expenditure for these 5,000 new beds is unknown. But it will be in the millions of dollars.
There is another alternative: Re-examine the provisions of our criminal code. Here are some options:
- Grant medical parole to prisoners whose physical condition prevents them from being a threat to public safety. For example, Arizona houses a female inmate who has become blind in prison. Is there really any reason to continue her incarceration?
- Restore incentives for prisoners to earn earlier release. Currently, all prisoners must serve 85 percent of their sentence, leaving the last 15 percent to be served under community supervision. Is there any reason that inmates who have a good disciplinary record and who have taken all the rehab programs available and otherwise abided by the rules should not be released at 60 percent of their sentence and be under community supervision for the last 40 percent of their sentence?
- Give judges discretion to deviate from mandated sentences where appropriate. In Payson last month, the criminal code required the judge to give a 73-year-old man a 90-year sentence for a non-violent first offense. The judge felt probation was more appropriate.
- Provide for more rehab and treatment programs for substance abusers, even where people may have failed the first time. (How many people quit smoking on their first attempt?)
- Allow DUI defendants who agree to refrain from alcohol and wear a GPS bracelet that indicates alcohol consumption to remain on home arrest rather than serve time in prison. Appropriate exceptions could apply where there has been serious injury or where the person has violated the probation by consuming alcohol.
The implementation of any or all of the above options could save the state millions of dollars, negating the need for 5,000 new prison beds.
I would then use these savings to restore funding to the developmentally disabled population and to perform long-delayed maintenance on existing prison facilities.
There may be problems with any one or all of the above recommendations. But Texas recently avoided spending $750 million on more beds by restructuring its criminal-justice system and simultaneously saw its crime rate drop. This is happening in a number of other states. Arizona should do the same.
Cecil Ash, a Mesa Republican, represents District 18 in the Legislature.