Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

EDITORIAL >>Privatization is no answer

What does it take to bury a bad idea? The Legislative Council last week undertook a study of turning Arkansasí prisons over to a private company, an idea suggested by Rep. Johnny Hoyt of Morrilton.

Hoyt was not around, at least in the legislature, the last time this hare-brained but appealing idea was raised. The state contracted with a private national company, Wackenhut Correction Corp., to operate a couple of the stateís penitentiaries.

Arkansasí prisons already were about the most cheaply run in the country, but Wackenhut said it could do it even more cheaply, and that was enough to sell the lawmakers.

The prisonsí cost was rising sharply every year, although the reason was no mystery.

The number of inmates climbed every year, and the state had to pay for new prisons and bigger staffs and it had to reimburse cities and counties for holding prisoners for whom there was no room in the penitentiaries.

There also was no mystery about how a private contractor could do it. It calculated the profit that the investors needed, then reduced the number of employees, salaries and insurance costs and services to a level that would fit within the state appropriation.

That is what Wackenhut did and in three years the scandal was so electrifying that the state canceled the contract and every lawmaker swore off privatization.

Arkansas prisons are a fair-sized city, roughly 15,000 inhabitants housed in close proximity and needing many of the necessities a city needs: food and medical assistance among others. They didnít get much medical help. Who, after all, would feel any compassion for a whining criminal?

Arkansas spends far more on corrections than any civilized society should, and under the existing criminal code it is going to have to spend tens of millions of dollars more every year.

But privatization is not the answer.

Reforming the criminal code to shorten the sentences of non-violent offenders and resort to alternative sentences for some victimless crimes would help. It would end the massive glut in the correctional system and make punishment certain once again.

That is the best deterrent of all, and the cheapest, too.