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Will incarceration bubble burst if Corrections Corporation of America leaves Hernando jail?

We all know that when the real estate bubble burst a few years ago, it cost us all. When the incarceration bubble bursts — as may be happening — it should save us money.

Because it's sure been expensive to blow it up.

In 1988, when Hernando County hired Corrections Corporation of America to run its jail, it paid the company $1.7 million to house 160 inmates; in recent years, the number of inmates, averaged over the course of a year, crested at 591 a day in 2007, and the annual cost of running the jail is now $11.4 million.

Sure, Hernando County's overall population has almost doubled in that time, and inflation did its usual dirty work. But the main reason for the increased costs here and across the country is that we are locking up a higher percentage of our residents.

"In the past decade, we've more than doubled our jail population, and consequently costs have gone up,'' said county purchasing director Jim Gantt.

What else has changed?

Well, 22 years ago, privatization seemed a new and promising approach to handling a growing inmate population at a reasonable cost.

Now, a lot of people think private jails and prisons waste taxpayer money, not save it. And I'm not just talking about union-funded activists. I'm talking about one of Hernando's most middle-of-the-road politicians, Sheriff Richard Nugent.

"The difference between us doing it and CCA doing it is, we don't have to carry the corporate load,'' said Nugent, who this week said he wants his department to reassume control of the jail.

"We don't have to support all the staff (at company headquarters) in Nashville. We don't have to show a profit margin for shareholders.''

CCA has a reputation for cutting costs to the bone, so I'm not sure Nugent really can save much money.

But we'd come out ahead even if he just keeps the costs level. The guards would be better paid and better qualified, judging from CCA's historic pay rates and turnover levels. And all the money spent on the jail would stay in the county.

Nugent has talked about a lot of potential savings. One big one is that, unlike CCA, he has a motivation to cut the jail population.

Big picture, the growth of CCA, from its founding in 1983 to a company that today supervises facilities with 80,000 beds, has coincided with the explosion of the nation's prison population.

The company isn't the main cause of this increase, of course. Twenty years ago, as crime rates climbed and prisons were filled to bursting, even violent criminals in Florida could get credit for three years of their sentence for every year they served. People had a right to be mad, and to demand longer sentences and to elect tougher judges.

But also consider this: CCA has contributed millions of dollars to the campaigns of politicians who backed longer sentences, said Ken Kopczynski, executive director of Private Corrections Working Group, who is one of those aforementioned union-funded activists.

And remember those laws that required prisoners to serve 85 percent of their sentences or, for many repeat offenders, a lifetime behind bars?

They were written by the conservative American Legislative Exchange Counsel at a time when CCA was helping steer its criminal justice policy, said Byron Price, author of Merchandising Prisons, a book about the private corrections industry.

This advocacy makes sense. The more people who are behind bars, the more CCA profits.

Locally, Nugent says, the company likes to stretch the booking of inmates out to at least six hours, even if money is available for bail. CCA also has no motivation to explore alternatives to jail time, such as ankle bracelets that could allow the Sheriff's Office to track the movement of people charged with nonviolent crimes.

There would seem to be plenty of candidates for such a program.

A county study showed that in April of last year, 48 percent of the inmates were in jail for probation violations. Another 30 percent were in for traffic offenses (not including driving under the influence) or for either possessing or selling marijuana.

Counties and states are looking to cut inmate populations to save money all over the country, said Steve Owen, a CCA spokesman, but that doesn't mean the idea of private corrections is a thing of the past. CCA is growing fast in some states, including California, where he expects CCA will supervise about 10,000 prison beds before the end of the year.

But the Private Corrections Working Group issued a statement in February stating that CCA had lost 7,594 beds in the previous 16 months, including the termination of its long-standing contract to run the Bay County jail in the Florida Panhandle.

If Hernando follows Bay's lead, it could leave Citrus as the only county in the state with a CCA-run jail.

You can almost hear the air going out of the bubble.

Will incarceration bubble burst if Corrections Corporation of America leaves Hernando jail? 03/04/10 [Last modified: Thursday, March 4, 2010 8:40pm]
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