Private Prisons can Help Florida Reform Its Criminal-Justice System
by Leonard Gilroy, guest columnist
The U.S. Department of Justice's announcement that it intends to phase out its use of private prisons has prompted some in Florida to question whether or not the state should follow suit. This would be a mistake.
Private prisons have played an important role in Florida's prison system since 1991, and today approximately 12 percent of the state's inmates are housed in seven privately operated prisons.
Decades of studies have shown that well-designed contracts with private prisons can reduce the costs of operating prisons. In recent years, Florida's Department of Management Services has reported cost savings in the range of 10 percent to 27 percent through the use of private prisons.
But, perhaps the most important and overlooked benefit of contracting — and what would be lost if Florida policymakers were to reverse course on private prisons — is the ability to harness innovation in a contract and tie pay to performance in ways that help inmates and society.
For example, in recent years, Pennsylvania canceled dozens of contracts for privately operated community-corrections centers. The state wanted to focus on reducing recidivism rates so it created new contracts linking the private operators' pay to reducing recidivism rates once their inmates had been released. The new contracts focus the private operators squarely on education and rehabilitation, and as a result, the state has experienced several years of declining recidivism rates.
With 25 years of experience, Florida has become one of the pioneers of effective contracting with private prisons. The state has steadily improved its contract oversight and monitoring of private prisons through the use of unannounced spot audits and onsite contract monitors designed to hold prison operators accountable for safety and security.
In fact, private prisons are often held to higher standards than facilities operated by the Florida Department of Corrections — an agency troubled in recent years by internal scandals, staffing shortages, prison disturbances, and lapses in inmate care — precisely because the private sector's role invites more scrutiny and accountability.
The key is in the contract. It's crucial that private-prison contracts focus on quality and safety. Private-prison operators cannot be allowed to fail on quality standards and still expect to be fully paid.
Public and private prisons are difficult environments full of bad actors, and incidents are going to happen in both types of prisons. Whether public or private, good management and oversight are the keys to preventing problems.
Some people worry private-prison companies will lobby to put more people in prison to drive up their profits. But this is an unsubstantiated canard, and states like Texas and Georgia that make significant use of private prisons have also been leaders in the criminal-justice-reform movement. Further, rather than fight a national decline in the incarcerated population, private-prison companies have gone the other direction, making major investments in expanding their business lines to include nonincarceration alternatives like home monitoring, residential re-entry services and the like.
Private prisons should be seen as a tool to continue momentum for criminal-justice reform. States like Florida can, and should, develop and utilize contracts that incentivize private-prison operators to provide job training, educational opportunities and rehabilitation programs, and better prepare inmates to re-enter society. The companies' pay can be tied to inmates successfully integrating back into their communities.
So, rather than try to end the use of private prisons, it would be smarter for Florida to maximize the performance-based approach to criminal-justice reform private companies can deliver. Prison contracting is the most promising way to improve offender rehabilitation, reduce recidivism, and benefit taxpayers and public safety overall.