The U.S. Department of Justice announced it was ending its use of private prisons. The DOJ’s Office of Inspector General released a critical report that found the private-run prisons do not provide the same level of service, do not save on costs and do not maintain the same level of safety and security.
The scathing report, combined with the decline in the federal prison population, led to the decision to phase out using private companies to manage 13 facilities housing 22,100 prisoners — roughly 12 percent of the Bureau of Prisons’ total inmate population.
It won’t happen overnight.
To achieve the goal of reducing and ultimately ending the use of privately operated prisons, officials are directed to decline to renew the contracts when they expire or to substantially reduce the scope of the contract.
While it’s a significant move by the DOJ, it only directly affects a small percentage of total inmates. The vast majority of those incarcerated in the United States are housed in state prisons. Additionally, the DOJ action does not apply to Immigration and Customs Enforcement and U.S. Marshals Service detainees.
Advocates are hoping DOJ’s action will spill over to other federal agencies and to the states where 91,000 inmates are in private-run prisons.
What gave rise to private prisons?
In 1980, there were 300,000 state and federal prisoners. Through a series of tough-on-crime measures — including mandatory minimum sentences, removing discretion from judges and establishing new crimes —lawmakers created more offenders and kept them incarcerated longer. By 2013 the inmate population exploded to 1.5 million.
Private prisons became an answer to swelling prison populations. They promised cost savings, but those savings didn’t materialize. For-profit private prisons were the beneficiaries of the criminalization of minor infractions and increased penalties.
National outrage has grown against the over-incarceration. While the United States represents 5 percent of the world’s population, we have 25 percent of all those incarcerated.
A diverse group of criminal-justice reform advocates, including religious leaders, tax reformers and billionaire businessmen, such as the Koch brothers, are working with the Obama administration in a bipartisan effort to correct the over-criminalization that distorted our once fair system of justice.
Some states started addressing the problem by changing their sentencing laws, giving discretion back to judges and reducing the use of mandatory minimums. They’re also focusing resources on treatment for addiction, programs to reduce recidivism and job training and work release.
The inmate population in some states has dropped, reducing the need for private prisons. Colorado closed four of its seven private prisons while Mississippi, facing budget shortfalls, shut down one.
What’s happening in Florida?
Florida’s inmate population was on a growth spurt and then remained steady for a few years before starting to decline.
In 2014, the Florida Department of Corrections incarcerated 100,873 offenders in 56 state prisons. The prison population dropped to 98,892 in May 2016.
Ten percent of Florida’s inmates are housed in seven private prisons at a cost of $142 million. The state has closed nine prisons but continues to send inmates to the seven private prisons.
The corporations seeking private prison contracts are politically powerful and well connected. They spend millions of dollars in Florida on lobbying teams and campaign contributions.
The Florida Legislature tried to turn 25 percent of state prisons over to private companies to operate by targeting all prisons south of Orlando. But lawmakers failed in 2011 when a circuit court judge ruled that their actions were unconstitutional and again in 2012 when nine Senate Republicans joined with all 12 Senate Democrats to kill the prison privatization bill on a 19-21 bipartisan vote.
It’s fundamentally wrong to privatize this function of government. A handful of private companies have gained disproportionate power and influence in shaping criminal justice policy often at odds with what’s in the public interest. The state benefits when recidivism is low; the opposite is true for for-profit prisons. Their financial success is dependent on individuals being incarcerated and detained.
That comes at a cost to taxpayers and to society.
Florida should follow DOJ’s lead and stop using corporations to manage its decreasing prison population.
Paula Dockery is a syndicated columnist who served in the Florida Legislature for 16 years as a Republican from Lakeland.