The matter of private prisons and jails has come to the forefront in Michigan--in cash-strapped and overtaxed Wayne County in particular. A new county jail with at least 1000 beds is needed as soon as possible to alleviate a serious overcrowding problem. Public officials are lining up on either side of a heated debate over whether to permit the new facility to be financed, built and managed by private sector companies.

Wayne County Executive Ed McNamara declares "it's mandatory that we allow privatization as an option," and argues that the concept should be applied first for misdemeanants and perhaps extended later to felons. The County Sheriff, Robert Ficano, opposes any far-reaching privatization and questions the money-saving claims of the idea's proponents. Meantime, action in the Legislature on bills to legalize prison and jail privatization is expected soon.

Hardly anyone questions the role of the state in determining the demand for imprisonment--including sentencing and minimal standards within facilities. What is very appropriate, and enjoying increasingly popular appeal nationwide, is competition and private sector involvement on the supply side. Privatization in that regard has much to recommend it.

Faced with many of the same kind of problems afflicting Wayne County--overcrowded conditions, court-ordered reforms, cutbacks in federal money and voter refection of bond issues, states and counties around the country have been busy authorizing "private sector corrections services." According to The Wall Street Journal, private firms already own and operate more than 30 state detention centers for illegal aliens, juvenile offenders, mental patients and others. Some 40 states contract out to private providers for medical services, drug treatment, vocational training and other kinds of prison programs and services.

Additionally, at least four state governments have now enacted laws permitting privately-operated state prisons. At least 15 others are considering legislation to do just that.

Last fall in the state of Idaho, a private company was selected by competitive bid for a "design-build-lease-purchase" arrangement. The company will build a new prison to the state's specifications. The state will then lease the facility for 30 years, staff and operate it, and then buy it outright. The plan will allow the state to realize savings up front by having the private firm handle the finance and construction. Some officials in Idaho state government believe further savings could be achieved if a broad range of prison services are also contracted out to the private sector.

The reasons for this privatization phenomenon are numerous. Private corrections firms tend to be inherently more efficient than state entities. For instance, Corrections Corporation of America--the nation's largest firm in the business--operates a growing number of county jails in several states and is providing service at least as good and at 10 to 40 percent lower cost than those county governments had previously experienced.

Experience suggests that the full range of privatization options offers many benefits. Facilities are constructed much faster--a vital plus in places where overcrowding of existing facilities is at crisis levels. Methods for evaluation, accountability, and control, according to renowned University of Connecticut criminologist and privatization authority Dr. Charles Logan, are superior in private firms compared to their government counterparts. Politically unpopular bonding issues and related controversies are greatly alleviated. And the growth of state and local bureaucracy is inhibited.

Some opponents of corrections privatization maintain that it would give rise to private, vested interests lobbying state government for longer sentences. Considering the present degree of overcrowding and widespread public support for longer sentences anyway, it seems this argument is overdone. Public officials--courts and legislatures--would still retain their basic decision-making duties over sentencing. There's no reason to believe that lobbying by private firms would be any more persuasive, less ethical or more common than the lobbying that goes on now by those with a vested interest in the status quo.

Prison and jail privatization deserves a fair hearing and an adequate trial in Michigan. Wayne County is as good a place as any to give it a shot. For that to happen, however, the Legislature must decide to permit it. It's an opportunity for Michigan which the Legislature ought not to pass up.

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Mr. Reed is President of The Mackinac Center, a private, non-profit educational and research organization in Midland. Permission is hereby granted to print or broadcast this article, in whole or in part, with appropriate credit given to the author and to The Mackinac Center.