Thursday, March 12, 2009

Private prisons then?

Not PC and I share some discomfort about the private sector being involved in the delivery and operation of prison services - and Anti Dismal has written much about the issue too, interestingly noting the risks of privatising maximum security facilities. This point stands out in an article he quotes "Moreover, hiring less educated guards and undertraining them—which private prisons have a strong incentive to do—can encourage the unwarranted use of force by the guards. As a result, our arguments suggest that maximum security prisons should not be privatized so long as limiting the use of force against prisoners is an important public objective."

Let's be clear - contracting out of ancillary services at prisoners is no issue, and there may be a case for contracting out prison management. The key is the disconnect between incentives to HAVE more prisoners, and the public policy reason for prisons.

Ideally, prisons would be nearly empty because crime would be rare. Ideally, prisons would deliver people reformed and who would never be repeat offenders.

However, a private prison owner would WANT repeat offenders, and would WANT criminals to want to return. That creates incentives not only to not rehabilitate, but to make prison desirable. Hardly what any of us want.

The flipside is that paying prisons to be feared creat incentives for abuse, and for crimes in prisons to be ignored. As much as many of us have glee at rapists and murderers suffering violence in prison, if you want prison to be a place of corporal punishment you should be transparent about it - as in Malaysia. Don't pretend that a Darwinian approach to justice in prison is a civilised substitute.

So I am wary of privatising prisons, wary of profits from applying force to people, wary of the incentives and malincentives around it.

Indeed, as Not PC has already pointed out, why is National and ACT only pursuing THIS privatisation? Why don't the usual masses of the lumpenproletariat give a damn about prisons, when they go apoplectic about privatising TVNZ, NZ Post, Air NZ, Kiwirail or a power company?

Indeed, if any sector needs more of the private sector, it is education. Imagine if ACT's policy, same as the UK Conservative Party's policy, was implemented in some form - parents not paying twice for education.

Now that's a step towards privatisation that would excite me, privatising prisons worries me, especially when mixed with the attitudes shown here by some in government.


Eric Crampton said...

A private prison owner wouldn't WANT repeat offenders if he got a payment N years after release in case of no re-offending. Surely contracts can include recitivism rates as a key performance indicator.

Libertyscott said...

Maybe, but what is the cheapest way of doing that? Scaring not rehabilitating - so having a brutalised prison may be the cheapest approach.

The question I have is why is this SO important? Where is the evidence of it delivering substantial results in terms of better criminal justice outcomes?

Nigel Kearney said...

>The key is the disconnect between incentives to
>HAVE more prisoners, and the public policy reason
>for prisons.

I'm sorry I just don't understand this.

Doctors make more money if you're sick, schools and universities make more money if you fail exams and have to resit, garages make more money if your car breaks down, etc etc.

You could build in a contractual provision as Eric suggested, or just do what other consumers do and send more business to providers that do a better job.

And under a state-run system, prison administrators and guards also have an incentive to increase the prison population.

Paul Walker said...

Eric: Your are right as long as you can write complete contracts but the basis of the HSV approach in that you can't. If you can write such things into a contract you're ok, if not then you are in trouble. And I'm not sure you can.

Eric Crampton said...

There are always margins we can't contract around, so Paul's right that it's always then a tradeoff between the high-powered incentives you get in the private sector, which might cause problems on non-contracted margins, and the slack incentives in the public sector, which might cause other problems.

So long as folks can update the contract every couple of years to work out the kinks, I can't see it being that huge a problem.

On the other side, there was that nasty case of judges being paid off by youth detention facilities to send teenagers to their prisons, regardless of offense severity....