Saturday, November 19, 2005

Counties unwise to become incarceration entrepeneurs

Most corrections officials view Texas' surfeit of prisoners as a looming crisis, but a few Texas counties see a chance for profiteering.

In Grits' recent column outlining
'best practices' to reduce county jail overcrowding, I mentioned how foolishly shortshighted it is for counties to view themselves as "incarceration entrepeneurs," building jails speculatively to house prisoners from other counties, or state and federal overflow. A great example of that arises in Harrison County in Northeast Texas ("Harrison County board okays $6.2 million jail extension," Longview News-Journal, Nov. 19), which plans to issue $1 million more debt than the commissioners court anticipated to build dozens more new jail beds than it needs, in hope they can turn a profit. Their vendors conviced them demand exists to keep the bonds afloat:

The state jail system is at 99.6 percent capacity, and county jails are 88.7 percent full while 90 percent full is considered capacity, [architect Donald] Olson said, adding that state officials are paying $45 to $50 per day to county jails who accept their prisoners.

The federal government, he said, is paying even more.

You'd think they'd have learned more from the jail overcrowding woes in neighboring Gregg County (Longview), where law enforcement officers have had to stop making low-level arrests because their jail is full of contract prisoners.

Once again, the seeds of tomorrow's crises lie in today's bad decisions. Turning incarceration from a lamentable government responsibility into an entrepeneurial income stream required to pay bond debt creates incentives to incarcerate ever more people, when in fact likely
many fewer could be arrested without harming public safety.

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