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Tightening Budget: Action Overview


It has been argued by many over many years that imprisonment is expensive and ineffective, yet it continues to be a major feature of penal policy in the U.S. justice system. The prison system operates on limited funding. The addition of prison time in the form of mandatory sentences, while effective for keeping habitual criminals off the street, serves to further overcrowd prisons and increase costs. The U.S. already incarcerates a higher percentage of its population than any other industrialized nation. Adding more prisoners is not in the best interest of this country’s citizens because they must pay higher taxes to build more prisons, support a growing inmate population and are ultimately less safe as a result. The economy is also damaged as this tax money is essentially thrown away needlessly rather than being spent within the community. State-run prisons experience familiar problems of other public-sector institutions that face no competition: inadequate supply, poor quality and high cost. To solve these problems, especially the cost factor, the government has encouraged the private sector to build and run new prisons. It remains a debatable topic, however, whether the prisons should remain in the control of the state or turned over to private companies.

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Description of the problems that exist that make it less effective than possible

For more than a quarter of a century, legislators have continually updated sentencing regulations by enacting guideline-based mandatory sentences. Of these modifications, the fixed prison terms handed down by politicians have been by far the most prevalent. The trend toward more stringent sentencing reforms has had sufficient time to be thoroughly researched and specific conclusions drawn from these studies. The first determination has been that the widely held viewpoints on which these ‘tougher’ sentencing laws were enacted from the public through their representatives were for the most part incorrect. The sentences for violent criminals were not as relaxed as popularly assumed prior to this period of massive reforms nor were they softer than sentences imposed in other industrialized nations for similar offenses. Misrepresented data used by political action groups combined with a media that focused its interest on abnormal examples of light sentences handed to violent criminals.

An increased prison population and its inherent costs have little effect on the attitudes of some. There are substantial variations in public attitudes with better educated people expressing less punitive measures than those in blue-collar occupations. Less punitive measures require offenders to pay back to victims, in a system commonly referred to as restorative justice, which shows them how to be better citizens. This system has a stronger resonance to many as an alternative form of punishment. “The public are not as punitive about crime as is often supposed. There is skepticism about prison and a great deal of support for prevention. Treating underlying problems of drug misuse and mental illness are popular ways of responding to crime. People want better alternatives to prison” (Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, 2004, p. 6).

Society has made astonishing industrial and technical developments over the past century, but it has only made modest progress in regard to its answer to crime. “We have changed only the details like lengths of sentence or the amount of fines that offenders must pay but few people are questioning whether there might be a more effective manner of responding to crime” (Santos, 2001). Prisoners’ families are left to lives of destitution as a result of this system, while the system continues to produce recidivism, failing to reduce crime. The leadership in a society sets its sights on the delinquent class by turning the prison system into a political advantage. “Victims of crime are most frequently from the lower classes, and strikes against property or authority are individualized and usually relatively minor; this ensures that crime is not too much of a political liability” (Foucault, 1977). The prison system creates a well defined criminal class and by maintaining a controllable criminal class, politicians are able to justify strong police and supervision forces which can also be used for wider political purposes. Since people know that a prison term brings a stigma that remains with an individual for life, they tend to avoid taking risks with the law and ostracize those who do. The prison does not control the criminal so much as it controls the working class by creating the criminal, which is the unspoken rationale for its persistence. “Clearly, no politician will discuss this policy with constituents because it amounts to a deliberate strategy. The implication is prison is maintained because of its failures, and not in spite of them” (Foucault, 1977).

Evidence of its ineffectiveness

During the last 25 years, the U.S. has seen an unparalleled proliferation of state and federal prison inmates. “Between 1980 and 1993, the number of persons incarcerated in these institutions grew from 329,000 to 949,000. By 1994, there were over a million persons in prison. Including those incarcerated in jails, over 1.5 million people were in prison at the end of 1995” (Gilliard & Beck, 1996). Data such as this has not reversed the inclination to imprison as modern methods of punishment in this way has become a way of life for the Western world. Michael Santos quotes David Garland regarding the modern use of prisons: “Whatever the reasons for their initial design; prisons and other strategies of punishment have expanded and persisted. And during the course of their evolution, most human beings have come to accept these cultural artifacts as the only acceptable response to crime. Thus, a system of punishment has become an integral part of western civilization, and many citizens believe we could have no society at all without prisons” (Santos, 2001).

The sentencing reforms that began in the 1980s had a simple purpose, to contain and diminish criminal activity by extending prison sentences which served to not only remove offenders from the community for a longer period of time but to deter others as well. The theory behind this is that the threat of long prison stays causes those contemplating crime to rethink their actions. Methods such as the ‘three strike rule’ cuts crime by removing the so-called ‘career criminals’ from the communities. “Crime control benefits of imprisonment can occur by increasing the certainty of punishment, increasing the severity of punishment, or both” (Cohen & Canela-Cacho, 1994). Locking the door and throwing away the key assures that a segment of the population does not have the opportunity to commit offense, thus an automatic reduction of crime. According to this theory, the cost of incarcerating a greater percentage of the population is regained by the reduction of costs involved in lessened criminal activity. Mandatory minimum sentences and other strategies that drastically increased punishments for nonviolent offenders such as drug users might seem to be a predicament only for people who use drugs. In fact, mandatory minimum sentencing threatens the safety of every citizen. Prisons all over the country are past full capacity causing a scarcity of room for violent offenders because those who are serving mandatory minimums for committing nonviolent crimes are taking up this space. Lengthier sentences lead to an increase in the already growing number of older inmates, who tend to amass greater health-care costs. Criminologists and corrections officials agree that prisoners become considerably less dangerous after they reach the age of 40. “Criminals start committing violent crimes early in life and continue doing so long after age 30, the age by which most other criminals have settled down” (Figlio, 1994). Despite all evidence that demonstrates getting tough on crime through longer sentencing actually harms society as a whole, especially financially speaking, public sentiment remains committed to following the same failed strategy. Therefore to reduce the ever-increasing costs of prisons to taxpayers, legislators could encourage the privatization of most or all prisons.

Suggested improvement and how it would be implemented

Serious debt problems and public demands to cut public spending in favor of privatization have been capitalized upon by the prison companies seeking approval. These companies offer privately financed solutions pointing to some successes achieved in the US, UK and Australia. The proposal appears, on the surface, to be fiscally appealing. Government has no immediate capital costs as the company borrows the necessary money to build and operate the prison. Penal reformers too might argue that private finance provides new infrastructure and creates jobs. “Private finance measures mean that a government hands over the finance, design and construction of a new facility and the provision of related services to a company or consortium in exchange for monthly fees over, usually, 25 years” (Nathan, 2001). Economic common sense implies that if there is a market to buy, sell and rent prison cells, the problems of funding and efficiently allocating prison space would decrease. “A competitive contract system brings in the discipline of contractual obligations and the need to meet specified standards. It puts pressure on all prospective providers to improve their quality and keep down costs” (Smith, 2002). Several private companies compete for prison contracts. A leading US firm currently manages 55 prisons located mainly in the UK, US and Australia. Whereas it took 15 to 20 years to build new prisons in US states, private prisons have been built in six to nine months in those countries allowing privatized prisons.

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Opponents to the privatization of prisons argue that because private businesses need to be profitable, their main interest is reducing costs causing social, economic and political implications including the loss of public accountability, poor wages and inadequate prison operation. As the private sector becomes more involved in operating correctional facilities, there will be increased pressure on legislators and executive staff to build more prisons and increase opportunity for profit. The private sector also becomes even more entrenched in the making of criminal justice policy. “Aside from the moral and ethical arguments about prison privatization, there is ample operational evidence that the policy is wrong. Pending such an examination there should, at the very least, be a moratorium on private prisons” (Nathan, 2001). Claims of significant cost-savings and improved efficiency from private prisons have not proven true. The current movement to privatize prisons assumes that modern entrepreneurs are somehow more compassionate and humanistic so that the exploitations will not occur. “Privately managed facilities will bring new opportunities for corruption. Given poorly paid, undereducated, and inadequately trained staff, opponents question the professionalism and commitment that privatized staff will bring to the job” (Walker, 1994). Although the private sector has been unable to follow through with its initial assurances of greatly improving prison operations, the sheer presence of privatization has had a significant impact on the government’s traditional prison operations methods. Privatization has served as a mechanism for change by demonstrating the means for competition in the industry of corrections. As limited as they are, however, these cost-saving innovations should be but one item on the privatization plan. Basic human rights should also be considered.

Description of how this will improve the effectiveness of the system

Proponents of privatized prisons report that they have indeed established new standards in efficiency, amenities and prisoner well-being. Private providers also have better facilities for rehabilitation efforts with their inmates promoting more purposeful time spent outside their cells. “Private prison providers also do more rehabilitation work with their inmates. … In 1999, Corrections Corporation of America became the first US prison service, public or private, to win a national accreditation sponsorship for its vocational trades courses” (Smith, 2002). According to Smith, those offenders who participate in these types of programs have a much greater choice of jobs available to them once they are released than those offenders who do not participate in these programs. The likelihood of offenders finding gainful employment following their release reduces the likelihood that they will return to crime as a means of supporting themselves, thus decreasing the costs to society. Because of this success, the company has been working to expand this program into its prisons in Colorado, Florida, Georgia and Oklahoma. Overall, private prisons perform better on every key measure. Privately managed prisons make a dual contribution to society by offering an improved chance to deal with the offenders’ central problems and at lower cost. A competitive contract system brings the discipline of contractual obligations and the need to meet specified standards. It puts pressure on all prospective prison providers to maintain their quality and keep costs at a minimum.


Cohen, Jacqueline & Canela-Cacho, Jose A. (1994). “Incarceration and Violent Crime: 1965–1988.” Understanding and Preventing Violence: Volume 4, Consequences and Control. Albert J. Reiss, Jr. and Jeffrey A. Roth (Eds.). Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press.

Esmee Fairbairn Foundation. (2004). “Rethinking Crime and Punishment: The Report.” 2008. Web.

Figlio, Robert M. (1994). “Self-Reported and Officially Defined Offenses in the 1958 Philadelphia Birth Cohort.” Cross- National Longitudinal Research on Human Development and Criminal Behavior. Elmar G. M. Weitekamp and Hans-Jrgen Kerner (Eds.). Dordecht, Boston, and London: Kluwer Academic Press.

Foucault, Michel. (1977). Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison. New York: Pantheon.

Garland, David. (1990). Punishment and Modern Society: A Study in Social Theory. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

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Gilliard, Darrell K. & Beck, Allen J. (1996). Prison and Jail Inmates, 1995. Washington D.C.: Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Nathan, S. (2001). “Prison Privatization.” Penal Reform International. 2008. Web.

Santos, Michael. (2001). “A Complexity of the Social Contract.” Prisoner Life. 2008. Web.

Smith, A. (2002) “Chapter 36: Competing for Convicts: Private Prison Provision and Management.” Around the World in 80 Ideas. 2008. Web.

Walker, D. (1994). “Privatization in Corrections.” Correctional Counseling and Treatment. Ed. Peter C. Kratcoski. Prospect Heights, IL: Waveland Press.

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