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Florida spending too much for too little on prisons

For several years, the Florida Legislature has taken bold steps to reduce the size of government in order to balance the budget without raising our taxes. These actions were necessary, but they have been extremely painful because they required cuts to existing services. Now legislators are considering a prison privatization idea that will save Florida taxpayers money — at least $9 million the first year, growing to as much as $20 million in future years —- with no reduction in services.

The proposal is straightforward, shifting management of more than two dozen state-run prisons to private sector operators. Florida already securely incarcerates 10,000 inmates in privately run prisons, and the taxpayers have saved tens of millions of dollars in the process. The current proposal requires a minimum 7 percent cost savings per year, although Florida's experience with privatized prisons suggests the savings could be twice as much.

The Florida Chamber of Commerce has long held the view that free-market solutions can make government work more efficiently. When we look at the state's prison system, we see barbed wire, concrete and steel monuments to big-government inefficiency.

The true measure of success for a business venture is its return on investment. Florida currently invests about $2 billion a year to operate its corrections system. Unfortunately, far too often, the main return we've seen on that investment is a return to prison.

More than 40 percent of men released from Florida's prisons will offend again within three years, and almost 27 percent will be reincarcerated. If we don't do something different, the expensive revolving door in front of our prisons will continue to spin.

According to the Collins Center's Smart Justice report, only two states devote a larger share of their general revenue funds to corrections than Florida's 10 percent. The report also notes that Florida is 37 percent above the national average in the share of state employees in the corrections workforce.

We are simply spending too much, for too little in return.

The privatization proposal before the Legislature will change that. Prisons across southern Florida will be able to operate more efficiently and more effectively, and public safety in no way will be jeopardized — private prisons have proven themselves to be as secure as any other facilities.

Importantly, the South Florida prison privatization pilot finally provides a real basis for comparison between publicly run and privately run prisons. The private sector firm or firms that take over operation of these prisons will have the same facilities, the same inmates and most of the same employees. But they will be required to produce defined, measurable outcomes and operate at a savings of at least 7 percent.

SB 2038 will reduce the growing size of government, improve overall accountability through strict contract requirements, enhance offender rehabilitation and reduce recidivism, which in the long run will result in even bigger savings for Florida taxpayers.

Detractors have stoked concerns that existing prison employees would lose their state jobs in a switch to privatization. The entrenched labor unions who oppose privatization fail to point out that private prison companies will be required by their contracts with the state to give priority to existing correctional officers when they staff the prisons. In reality, the overwhelming majority of workers are likely to be hired into the same positions by the private operators.

It's clear the status quo isn't working, and hasn't worked for some time. Florida must do something different, something bold, to end this costly cycle of failure.

This bold plan for smaller, smarter government maintains the state's strong commitment to protecting public safety while also protecting public resources.

Brad Swanson is vice president of corporate and strategic partnerships for the Florida Chamber of Commerce.

Florida spending too much for too little on prisons 02/12/12 [Last modified: Sunday, February 12, 2012 3:30am]
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