Criminal Justice, Taxes

Colorado’s prison budget not a jobs program

If we want more prison cells, empty or full, we simply need to pay for them. It is no more complicated than that, as seen in a recent government transaction documented in The Colorado Springs Gazette by Colorado Public News.

The story tells of Gov. John Hickenlooper and members of the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee negotiating a deal in 2012 to give 3,300 prisoners, at $20,000 each, to Corrections Corporation of America to keep the company from closing one or more of its Colorado prisons. The state’s incarceration rate has declined at a faster-than-expected rate, along with crime rates, and space is in surplus at Colorado’s 24 state-owned and private prisons.

Private-sector profits make this country great. Nothing is more fair and benevolent than an economic system that rewards merit. Because of potential profits, individuals and groups are able to fund research that cures diseases. We find and produce energy in pursuit of profits. Entrepreneurs work days and nights, risking their homes and savings, on the hope they will profit after improving the lives of consumers. Profit generates the wealth that pays for governments to keep us free and provide common assets, such as bridges and roads, that are not always practical as private-sector undertakings.

When the public wants more and better smartphones, they get them because of the efforts of people who seek profits. Everyone wins.

But not all profit is virtuous. Just as profit motive can provide a surplus of cars, it can provide surpluses we do not want.

Private prisons run on a profit motive that creates a perverse incentive for governments to supply prisoners. Politicians don’t want closure of private prisons because it means layoffs in communities that depend on these institutions to provide good jobs.

Coloradans, and those in the state government they pay to serve them, should be delighted that incarceration rates are plummeting. Colorado’s prison population is 20,140, about the level state officials expected two years from now, after crime rates dropped by a third in the past decade. The state has 1,000 empty prison beds throughout its facilities and the number rises by about 100 each month. Coupled with crime reduction is a bipartisan decision to improve the state’s sentencing structure in a manner designed to spend less money feeding and housing offenders who pose minimal risk to public safety.

The logical response to less need for prison space should be fewer prisons. Two half-full prisons can become one full prison and a decommissioned prison.

We can find no aspect of incarceration, a necessary evil, that serves as legitimate economic development. Some individuals must lead part or all of life behind bars and that may never change. While incarcerated, a person lives as a liability to the public. A person in prison costs an economy more wealth than a prisoner can possibly produce. If prisons benefit the economy, we should build more of them immediately. They do not.

Yes, prisons create jobs for wardens, guards and maintenance workers. But their wages come from private-sector revenues that could otherwise fund endeavors that grow the money, create good jobs, pay taxes and spread the wealth through voluntary, mutually beneficial transactions.

Unlike a private prison owner, governments benefit from declining prison populations. To a politician, fewer prisoners should be seen as more money for bridges, roads, education and other investments that move society forward.

To a private prison operator, fewer prisoners means cause for panic. That’s why CCA pays lobbyists to keep prisoners coming. CCA lobbyist Mike Feeley helped broker the multimillion-dollar deal to keep the company’s prisons on life support.

With Colorado’s enviable incarceration decrease, CCA makes less money. It mothballed its Walsenburg facility in 2010 because of a lack of prisoners. The Pueblo Chieftain reported in March of 2012 that CCA had threatened to shut down another prison, most likely its half-full facility in Burlington, if the state could not supply more prisoners and/or money. The Chieftain quoted Hickenlooper’s chief of staff, Roxane White, explaining the need for up to $15 million to keep Colorado’s private prisons in business.

We respect that politicians want to delay closure of prisons that will create hardships for communities that depend on them for payrolls. No one wants anyone to lose a job at a time like this.

But we must reduce our prison space, as quickly and painlessly as possible, to match demand.

We should pay for no more incarceration than we need to punish criminals and keep the public safe. Let’s free the hard-earned capital of Colorado taxpayers. They could use it to create wealth and jobs that make more sense.

Wayne Laugesen is editorial page editor at the Colorado Springs Gazette, where this op-ed originally appeared

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