There is a natural tendency among politicians new to Tallahassee to assume that when they encounter resistance to change it is because of inertia rather than informed experience. The latest debacle involves the bold and quick decision by the Republican-led Legislature to privatize 30 state prison facilities in 18 South Florida counties. A minor detail not discussed at the time: up to $25 million in public money to provide severance pay to more than 4,000 Department of Corrections workers.
Corrections staffers say they told the legislative staff about the expense, but it was never discussed openly nor addressed in this year's state budget. Now it appears the agency will need to find the money — a prospect the corrections secretary warned "may just cripple the agency" — or seek special dispensation from the Joint Legislative Budget Commission.
The state's rush to privatize more prisons already had looked rash. While state law requires private prisons to cost 7 percent less, it's never clear whether those cost savings actually materialize. The Legislature's research agency, the Office of Program Policy Analysis and Governmental Accountability, has acknowledged as much. The office noted that while private prisons may cost less, they house far fewer inmates with special medical needs, which drives their costs below public-run facilities.
A surer way to cut costs would be to revisit the state's mandatory minimum sentencing for low-risk offenders and invest in prison programs to reduce recidivism — ideas Corrections Secretary Ed Buss supports but ones that have received short shrift from Gov. Rick Scott and Republican lawmakers.
Instead, the Republican leadership in Tallahassee has chosen to hand off a major function of public safety to a politically active, for-profit enterprise without fully vetting the details in public. The same recklessness isn't limited to lawmakers. Earlier this year the Department of Environmental Protection, backed by Scott, rushed a proposal to put campgrounds in 56 state parks before determining whether the sites were even suitable.
Public policy isn't easily conveyed in a campaign sound bite. But too often in modern Tallahassee, it's such rhetoric — not sound policy analysis — that dictates the state's direction. Taxpayers deserve better, and the $25 million they may end up giving to laid-off corrections workers for a new private prison system that may not save money is just one more piece of evidence.