The Florida Legislature has been frugal about most things in recent years, with one exception - prisons.
Florida has been on a prison-building binge.
And despite the state's avowed fiscal conservatism, the binge has been financed with what amounts to a $1 billion credit card.
Things are so out of hand that prisons continue to be filled while crime declines. So where are the new prisoners coming from? Too often, from first-time offenders and nonviolent drug offenders.
Other states, most notably Texas, have responded by finding alternatives to prison that save money and still protect the public.
Florida, unfortunately, has responded by simply transferring more prisons to private companies. That doesn't necessarily save money. In fact, after more than a decade of prison privatization, the savings are still vague.
- There is no hard evidence that private prisons save money or have better outcomes than public ones, reported the Florida Center for Fiscal and Economic Policy last year.
- A 2008 report from the Legislature's accountability office concluded that there was no good assurance that private prisons had comparable levels of health and mental health care as public ones.
- A report from The Miami Herald listed allegations that private and public prisons often can't be compared equally, charging that private prisons seek to off-load their more expensive prisoners to public facilities. For instance, prisoners who are high security risks or have expensive medical conditions may be less likely to be kept in private facilities.
So it made sense for the Legislature to privatize an entire region in South Florida, thus reducing the ability for cherry-picking.
The proposal would privatize most facilities south of Manatee and Indian River counties to be overseen by the Department of Corrections. That appears to be about 18 counties, though the corrections department still is analyzing the law.
State law requires private prisons to provide at least a 7 percent savings. One would think that would be easy to do given the confidence in privatization. Of course, a private company would need a profit margin in addition to the savings.
As of last year, six of Florida's 62 prisons were run by private companies.
This newspaper sees privatization as neither friend nor foe, simply as another option for the taxpayers. …