Sorting Out the Merits of Privately-Owned Prisons

Last week, a New York Times editorial argued that privately-owned prisons “can cost more to operate than state-run prisons,” even though these prisons allegedly cherry-pick inmates by excluding sick inmates who may cost more. In questioning the wisdom of recent privatization efforts, the editorial cites a report published by the Arizona Department of Corrections, which found that “inmates in private prisons can cost as much as $1,600 more per year, while many cost about the same as they do in state-run prisons,”

This analysis, however, does not take into consideration the effect that privately owned prisons have on public corrections costs. A 2007 Vanderbilt study, for instance, found that “state correctional systems which use private prisons in addition to public prisons experience lower rates of growth in the cost of housing their public prisoners” in comparison to states without private prisons. In particular, between 1999 and 2004, the average cost of housing prisoners in a public facility grew by about 5 percent in states without a private prison. But, average costs increased by less than 2 percent in states with some prisoners housed in privately run prisons.

As the Vanderbilt study shows, the merit of privately-owned prisons should not only be measured by a cost-per-inmate comparison. Rather, as an April 2011 Reason report argues, Private-Public Partnerships (PPPs) can “provide an effective, cost-saving alternative for governments seeking to address significant capacity needs while taking pressure off their corrections budget.”

Nevertheless, there is some evidence suggesting that private prisons do cost less to operate than government-run prisons, producing savings between 5 and 20 percent. Of 28 studies reviewed by the Reason Foundation, 22 found that savings averaged about 15 percent, while the other six studies found the costs to be about the same. In Texas, for example, in 2008, it cost Texas taxpayers $47.50 a day on average to keep an offender in a state prison, whereas privately operated prisons cost the state only $36.10 per day.

Equally important, though, is determining the best way to measure, evaluate and reward the performance of the prison system. In addition, there is the question Megan McArdle addressed yesterday of when the government should contract out. An interesting and innovative British proposal profiled last year would create a system in which each warden or contractor would have a portfolio of inmates—as if they were investments. As the report says, “the goal is to achieve a positive return by reducing recidivism through the efficient allocation of resources and implementation of effective practices both during the incarceration and parole phases of the offender’s progression through the system.” In effect, the plan would fund prisons partly based on their results.

As McArdle wrote “I’d be much more sanguine about the prospects for an agency in either the prison or welfare system that got paid only if their “clients” stayed employed, out of jail, and drug free for a year after leaving the system.”

Texas Lawmakers Look to Make Changes to Sex Offender Registry

Texas is one of only a few states that includes in its public sex offender registration database the contact information of a sex offender’s employer. (A majority of the states exclude this information from their databases.) This has harmed some employers who become publicly linked with the database, while also forcing employers to be hesitant in hiring registrants.

The recidivism rates for sex offenders can be aggravated by barriers that restrict their ability to successfully re-integrate into society—in this case, barriers to employment. This is particularly troublesome in “Romeo & Juliet” cases wherein, for example, a consenting 19-year-old has sex with a consenting 17-year-old, and the 19-year old is required to register as a sex offender. While SB 198 looks to address the Romeo & Juliet problem, HB 3346 seeks to address the harm to employers by removing employer information from the database. HB 3346 passed with bipartisan sponsorship and overwhelming support in the House (138-2), while SB 198 is awaiting a signature from Governor Perry.

The Department of Public Safety unilaterally decided to add employer information to the registry in 2008, apparently in anticipation of its requirement by the federal Adam Walsh Act. However, Texas has been resisting the requirements of the Act, “saying the cost for Texas to comply would be $38.8 million.” The federal Act bases registration on offenses committed, while Texas’s current sexual offender registry is based on risk assessment.

SB 316 Tackles Asset Forfeiture Abuse in Texas

The Texas bill filed by State Senator John Whitmire to address the continuing abuse of asset forfeiture has progressed through both the House and Senate, and it is inching closer to becoming law.  In April, Right on Crime profiled a report by the Institute of Justice dealing with asset forfeiture abuse in Georgia.  Texas has similar problems with confiscated property and funds being used for non-law enforcement purposes – including the purchasing of alcohol for office parties.

Current Texas law allows a district attorney to appear at a roadside search and obtain a waiver for property seized before any court case or criminal charges have been filed.  SB 316, however, would prohibit these waivers until notice of a civil suit has been appropriately filed. Additionally, the bill establishes a list of unauthorized uses for appropriately seized assets, enabling law enforcement agencies to better avoid mishandling these assets.

Widespread Use of Criminal Background Checks in the Information Age

In March, the National Employment Law Project released a report entitled 65 Million “Need Not Apply”: The Case for Reforming Criminal Background Checks for Employment. According to the report, almost 65 million Americans (about one in five) have some type of criminal record, whether for an arrest or a conviction. And, for many of those 65 million Americans who are seeking employment, the hiring process can be very difficult as employers are often leery of candidates with a criminal history.

A recent New York Times article tells the story of Ayanna Spikes, a 38-year old University of California-Berkeley graduate who was arrested in 1997 for robbing a video store.  While Ms. Spikes has not had any further brushes with the law in the last 14 years, she reports that she has been turned down for more than a dozen jobs since finishing college after employers ran a criminal background check.  The Times reports that like Ms. Spikes, others are turned away after having been “convicted of minor offenses, or of crimes that appear to have little relevance to the jobs they are seeking.”

The Internet has made performing these criminal background checks a lot easier, as potential employers no longer have to perform a physical search of court records. And according to this survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, almost 90% of the companies surveyed claim to run checks on employees. Yet, as Adam Klein, an attorney with Outten & Golden argues, “we’re spending a tremendous amount of money incarcerating people and then creating a system where it’s almost impossible for them to find gainful employment.”

Understandably, many employers believe that hiring someone with a criminal record may not be in their best interest. However, while recidivism studies show that nearly a third of offenders return to jail within three years, a number of “redemption” studies have demonstrated that recidivism declines steadily with time clean. Because the “risk that an ex-offender will be re-arrested decreases substantially over time,” eventually those offenders become indistinguishable from someone of the same age with no record. Thus, for people like Ms. Spikes, criminal background checks often serve as an unnecessary barrier to entry.

Criminal background checks serve an important purpose, and it is important to remember that employers can be liable if they fail to screen an employee who later harms someone. Yet, in light of available redemption statistics, reforming the way in which criminal background checks are used may be in order.

Texas Rehabilitation Programs Reduce Recidivism Rates

In May, the Texas Department of Criminal Justice (TDCJ) released an evaluation of released offenders who had completed rehabilitation programs, many of which were expanded in the 2007 budget package. This package allocated $241 million to increasing the capacity of treatment slots and beds in lieu of spending $2 billion to build and operate the 17,332 new prison beds that the Legislative Budget Board projected in January 2007 that the state would need by 2012 .

These evaluations are routinely performed to examine the extent to which rehabilitation programs reduce offender re-incarceration and parole revocations. And, for offenders released in 2007, the report found that recidivism rates were significantly lower for those who participated in the programs.

Included among the studied programs were the faith-based InnerChange Freedom Initiative (IFI), the Substance Abuse Felony Punishment (SAFP) Program and the Violent Offender Reentry Initiative (SVORI), as well as other programs aimed at the successful reintegration of offenders.  And with the exception of the Pre-Release Substance Abuse Program (PRSAP), one of the smaller programs, all of these programs evaluated reduced the three-year recidivism for program completers. Significantly, the SAFP Program reduced recidivism by almost 14%.

The In-Prison Therapeutic Community (IPTC) reduced recidivism for program completers two and three years after release. Additionally, the Sex Offender Education Program (SOEP) and The Sex Offender Treatment Program (SOTP) reduced recidivism for program completers two and three years after release.

The expanded capacity of these programs has also reduced costs since many inmates approved for parole cannot be released until they go through one of these six-month programs. As Texas House Corrections Committee Chairman Jerry Madden argued, “these new statistics show these programs are cost effective and are working”. Agreeing with Chairman Madden, Senate Criminal Justice Committee Chairman John Whitmire added, “To cut these programs would be an invitation to build more prisons.”

New Report Examines How to Improve Restitution Collection

According to the National Center for Victims of Crime (NCVC), “policymakers, criminal justice officials, and victim advocates are becoming increasingly attuned to the problem of uncollected victim restitution.” While data for all states does not exist, reports that are available show discouraging levels of collected restitution in states and localities. In Texas, for instance, a 2008 examination found that more than 90 percent of offenders discharged from parole between 2003 and 2008 still owed their victims restitution.

In response to this growing problem, the NCVC released a report, Making Restitution Real, which includes five case studies examining local efforts to improve the collection and payment of victim restitution. Three of the five studies reflect statewide efforts in California, Michigan, and Vermont, while the remaining two focus on local programs in Arizona and Florida. While most programs focused on increased collections efforts, Vermont, for example, introduced a centralized system where victims are paid up-front, leaving the burden of collecting restitution from offenders to the state.

Altogether, these five studies represent important and wide-ranging efforts by states and localities to address the challenges inherent in collecting restitution. Though the numbers are staggering—the most recent statistics show uncollected criminal debt at the federal level to be over $50 billion—the report does not marginalize the fact that “behind these numbers are real crime victims in need.” And as courts have recognized, restitution is also important for offenders, as it “forces the defendant to confront, in concrete terms, the harm his or her actions have caused.”

“Allowing court-ordered fines and penalties to be ignored diminishes public respect for rule of law”, the report correctly notes, and establishing performance measures and benchmarks in order to facilitate the collection of victim restitution is an important challenge facing the states today. These case studies do a good job introducing some of the ways that states are beginning to address the problem.

Kentucky Passes Legislation to Address Out-of-Control Corrections Costs

On March 3, 2011, Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear signed into law HB 463—a criminal justice reform bill designed to decrease the state’s prison population, reduce incarceration costs, reduce crime and increase public safety. The Public Safety and Offender Accountability Act was a strong bipartisan effort, passing the Senate unanimously and the House by a vote of 96 to 1. According to the Pew Center for the States, the Act “puts Kentucky at the forefront of states advancing research-driven criminal justice policies designed to protect public safety, hold offenders accountable and control corrections costs.”

Kentucky’s corrections budget increased from $30 million in 1980 to nearly $470 million in 2010, and its prison population rose along with it—growing nearly 80 percent between 1997 and 2009. That year, Kentucky had the highest incarceration rate in the nation. But despite the dramatic increase in costs, Kentucky’s crime rate remained about the same. These bipartisan reforms look to change that.

The Act’s many reforms are estimated to result in cost-savings of $422 million over 10 years to the Kentucky taxpayer, and will seek to stop the revolving door for lower-risk, non-violent offenders. By doing so, this should open up more prison space for violent and career criminals. And, similar to the recent bipartisan Arkansas reform act, the legislature agreed that half of the savings will be reinvested in efforts to reduce recidivism, including strengthening probation and parole and programs for substance abusing offenders.

As Governor Beshear said in regards to the Act, “it enables [Kentucky] to continue to be tough on crime but at the same time to be smarter about it.”

Arkansas Enacts “Smart on Crime” Reforms

On March 22, Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe enacted significant corrections reform in Arkansas by signing Senate Bill 750—the Public Safety Improvement Act—after it was passed unanimously in the Senate and 79-14 in the House. After initially drawing opposition from prosecutors, the measure won endorsements from the Arkansas Prosecuting Attorneys Association as well as associations representing police chiefs, sheriffs, county judges and circuit judges.

In Arkansas, the prison system holds thousands more prisoners than it has the capacity to house, resulting in hundreds of state convicts backed up in county jails awaiting bed space. Without the bill, those prison costs were expected to increase by $1.1 billion over the next decade. However, the Act lessens sentences for some nonviolent offenses and expands alternative-sentencing programs such as drug courts. It also allows the state Department of Community Correction to restore 49 positions for parole and probation officers. These reforms are expected to reduce the increasing prison costs by $875 million.

As State Rep. Darrin Williams correctly noted, “[Arkansas] must be tough on crime, but we must also be smart on crime.” The Act does not touch any violent crimes, and the anticipated prison savings will be reinvested in evidence-based community supervision and programs designed to reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable.

Reforms Needed to Better Serve At-Risk Youth

The Legislative Budget Board (LBB) recently released a report providing legislative recommendations for the delivery of services to at-risk youth in Texas.  In doing so, the LBB examined the case files of 252 juvenile offenders, making the following findings:

  • More than half of the offenders had a “substance abuse issue”
  • Nearly half had a “mental health issue”
  • More than one-third “have experienced some type of early childhood trauma”
  • A quarter “have been a victim of abuse or neglect”
  • About one-fifth of them have been involved in a Child Protective Services intervention

Altogether, the report found that of the 252 juvenile offenders studied, 74 percent have experienced at least one of the above issues.

In light of these findings, State Rep. James White has pledged to work with members of the House Corrections Committee to reform the way that state agencies serve these at-risk youth. According to White, “a lot of social issues contribute to delinquent behavior, and many youth do not receive needed services until they commit crimes and are referred to the local juvenile probation department.”

Incorporating crime prevention into school-based programs, streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and streamlining duplicative services and assessments, and intervening effectively with those youths who simply misbehave in school to divert them from the juvenile justice system, are among the potential reforms the LBB report suggests ought to be considered.  As Rep. White argues, “if we can identify young people who are showing at-risk indicators before they engage in criminal behavior, we hopefully can offer services… preventing incarceration.”

The report is valuable because it does not recommend throwing more money at the juvenile crime problem, but instead highlights how through better collaboration and coordination among school, social services providers, and the juvenile justice system and an emphasis on early intervention can maximize the results achieved through existing resources.

Bill Encourages Underage Drinkers to Seek Medical Help in Emergencies

On Wednesday, a bill passed the Texas Senate that may help address one of the many problems associated with underage drinking. Senate Bill 1331, which would allow minors to receive immunity from alcohol-related charges when seeking emergency medical help, was introduced by Senator Kirk Watson. According to the Senator, the bill would prevent minors from “[getting] into trouble for doing the right thing.”

While the bill grants immunity to the first person seeking medical assistance for the incapacitated person, it also includes a provision for the mandatory punishment of individuals convicted of coercing others into consuming alcohol. The impetus for these two provisions stems from the tragic case of Carson Starkey—a California Polytechnic State University student who died from alcohol poisoning when his fellow fraternity members failed to seek emergency help. Carson Starkey’s mother, Julia Starkey, praised the bill as “lifesaving legislation,” adding that her son “would be alive today if his peers had not been afraid to get him help for fear of getting themselves in trouble.”