by Howard Stephenson

The Utah Legislature’s Tourism Task Force recently endorsed a proposal for creation of a two-year Task Force on Government Privatization and Government Competition with the Private Sector. The Tourism group has been grappling with the private use of public facilities which compete with private tax-paying entities providing similar facilities. I have proposed the new task force in my role as State Senator because I repeatedly hear concerns from private businesses that are affected adversely as they attempt to compete with government-subsidized businesses.

Examples of government getting into the business of business have included golf courses, fitness centers, power utilities, telecommunications services, restaurants, hotels, and even wedding reception facilities located at courthouses, libraries, parks and other public properties. The study will evaluate whether these government-provided services are appropriate and if so, whether they should be taxed and regulated like their private sector competitors.

A second, and equally important, need for the Task Force is to examine cost-saving opportunities for government to out-source some of its functions to the private sector. Utah taxpayers should get the most bang for their buck when it comes to government programs. Currently there is discussion in the Utah Legislature about privatizing prisons. During the past three months Utah’s Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee has been considering a proposal for prison privatization.

Out-sourcing Prison Facilities and Management

Utah currently has a shortage of prison beds and risks the possibility of allowing inmates to go free before their sentences are fulfilled. The problem is not going to solve itself. Private prisons should be part of the answer in addressing this problem.

Currently 35 states outsource the operation of prisons to private providers. Among the eleven western states only Utah and Oregon do not have prisoners in private facilities. New Mexico has a whopping 42% of prisoners in private facilities followed by 29% in Wyoming, 28% in Montana, 20% in Idaho 16% in Colorado, 14% in Arizona, and less than 10% in Nevada, Washington, and California.

Although Department of Corrections Executive Director Scott Carver opposes privatization of medium and maximum security facilities, he is lending support for the idea of a new private 250 bed facility to handle parole or probation technical violators. These are non-threatening parolees and probationers in the community who have made a technical violation which does not merit re-incarceration but does call for therapy and training. I am proposing legislation to accomplish Carver’s plan.

Utah currently spends slightly more per incarcerated inmate than the national average. Your Taxpayers Association believes this is due at least in part to the lack of competition. In many other states, privately operated prisons save tax dollars. Some independent studies indicate this savings can be as high as 15%.

The American Correctional Association, in its 2005 Directory: Adult and Juvenile Correctional Departments, Institutions, Agencies, and Probation and Parole , reports that Utah has one of our nation’s highest recidivism rates. In fact of the 30 entities which reported recidivism rates to the study, Utah was second highest with Washington D.C. being first. This is perhaps the single biggest reason why our state is once again in need of more prison bed space.

Utah should look to the private sector to assist in solving its correctional challenges. Other states commonly employ private companies to design, build and operate new prisons. This can result in a savings of up to 40% in construction time and 20% in construction costs.

I believe it is time for Utah to give prison privatization a chance. This can be accomplished by establishing clear outcome standards specifying what is expected of our prisons. Then prison operators, public and private, must be held accountable for achieving the expected outcomes. All correctional facilities should have established performance guidelines. With these guidelines, facilities also need a system through which prisons can be impartially evaluated for effectiveness.

Systems are needed to collect and publicly disclose statistics. Taxpayers deserve to know what is being done for inmates to reduce their likelihood to re-offend. For example, the public should know:

• How many inmates with potential for parole are passing GED exams?

• How many are completing career and technical training programs?

• How many are graduating from substance abuse treatment programs?

• How many are involved in detrimental safety or security incidents?

Any debate regarding prison management should not merely focus on public vs. private. The more important issues are which systems are efficient and effective. Establishing impartial criteria for measuring results will shift the argument from who is doing the work to how well is the work being done?

Utah taxpayers deserve correctional employees who are responsive to a set of quality standards – not people simply clocking into a protected government job. The danger of no competition is that monopolies tend to lower expectations and results.