(Note: The following was posted as a blog
entry on the
Students for a Free Economy Web site. SFE is a nonpartisan campus outreach project of the Mackinac Center that promotes the benefits of free markets, civil society and individual liberty.)
Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s 2008 State of the State speech
24 expansions of government, but included
precious few words about cutting costs or making state government more
efficient. She did make a vague reference to saving money in the prison budget,
but there were no details until this was translated in a
Detroit News interview: The item was just
a renewal of her call to let prisoners out by reforming Michigan’s sentencing
Senate Republicans and some in the
right-of-center blogosphere are
criticizing this, but there’s nothing intrinsically "conservative" about locking
up substantially more people for longer periods than our Midwest neighbor
states. Heck, even Mackinac Center scholars have noted that it
makes no sense to bankrupt Michigan by
locking up so many. The public safety implications are ambiguous at best; as the
CRC nicely put it, "The relationship between the higher incarceration rate
and crime rates is not apparent."
In contrast, the governor deserves to be strongly
criticized for her refusal to even consider privatization. Reportedly, back in
2002 candidate Granholm promised the prison guard union that if elected she’d
shut down Michigan’s only privately managed prison — and she kept that
promise. To sell it to the public, most of the dangerous prisoners that the
privately-run Baldwin "punk prison" was designed for were first removed, and
then dishonest figures were created showing higher "costs-per-prisoner." These
failed to point out that if you remove most prisoners but require the same
number of guards and other fixed costs, the per-prisoner costs will be higher.
Incidentally, the House and Senate Fiscal Agencies
repeated that info but gave no hint that there was anything wrong with it.
Republicans had control of the House and Senate then, but to my knowledge they
never questioned why their "non-partisan" agencies weren’t shedding more light
on those flawed analyses.
The Mackinac Center has pointed to research suggesting that privatizing prisons can save hundreds of millions
of dollars — not just because the private ones are more efficient — but due
to the "dynamic" effects that occur when the publicly-managed prisons are forced to sharpen their own pencils because of they fear losing their "business" to
more efficient private competitors. The Center projected that if the savings
indicated by that research were applied to Michigan, privatizing just 5 percent
of our prisoners would save
almost $200 million.
So why does the governor show no interest in
investigating this huge cost-saving opportunity? When asked she cites those
phony Baldwin figures, but she shouldn’t be let off the hook that easily. The
overwhelming consensus of scholarly research on the issue shows that prison
privatization saves big bucks. The answer is more likely to be found by asking
what she got in return for that reported campaign promise she made to the prison
guard union. It looks like just more evidence that the first
priority of this state’s government establishments isn’t the public welfare,
but that of public employees.
By the way, Michigan prison guards salaries are $43,785
on average, compared to a national average of $33,531, according to an
annual salary survey published by the AFT teachers union.
Jack McHugh is senior legislative analyst for
the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a research and educational institute
headquartered in Midland, Mich. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is
hereby granted, provided that the author and the Center are properly cited.