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Weep Not for the Jailer

| September 3, 2013

Earlier this week, California Governor Jerry Brown proposed a two-year stopgap measure that would allocate $315 (potentially exceeding $700 million) to rent private jail space, essentially “kicking the can down the road” in trying to cope with the court-imposed deadlines on capacity targets. Joe Baumann, a chapter president in the California Correctional Peace Officers Association, called the proposal a “win-win” as it preserves jobs potentially on the chopping block pursuant to California’s justice realignment.

On August 1st, Sen. Dick Durbin sung the praises of the “the President, his administration, the U.S. Senate, and the Illinois congressional delegation” for the progress toward activation of the Thompson Correctional Center. While his remarks here are contrary to the sentencing reforms recently suggested by Attorney General Eric Holder, Durbin lauded the prison as an engine of economic growth. “Annual operation of the facility is expected to generate more than $122 million in operating expenditures (including salaries),” the senator’s press release highlighted, “$19 million in labor income, and $61 million in local business sales.”

This narrative from Mr. Baumann and Sen. Durbin, however, rings hollow. If building and filling prisons represent a net gain for a state economy, would it not make for sound financial and criminal justice policy to incarcerate our way to prosperity?

In truth, full capacity incarceration not only requires public funds to underwrite capital and operational expenses, it prevents the individual in custody from participating in the community and the economy, providing restitution to the victim, and seamlessly reentering society upon their release. While “private prison” companies have become the default scapegoat for meddlesome tinkering with the criminal law (in some cases rightly so), little heed is paid to the correctional officers unions. These labor organizations have on many noteworthy occasions rejected reformative, evidence-based policies, supported those that would serve to swell their ranks or protect political investments, and engaged in litigation to halt closures.

Correctional officers on the whole are decent people who work hard at a thankless job to contribute to the public safety and provide for themselves and their families. However, to prioritize job security above sensible, evidence-based reform of the correctional system not only runs up an unsustainable tab but erodes the legitimacy of law and government. Policymakers should only resort to opening new or repurposed permanent facilities once all other sensible options have been exhausted. In California, just as federally and in many other states, they have not been exhausted. Secure correctional facilities should be used to incapacitate and rehabilitate offenders who pose a danger in a less-secure environment, not as an instrument of political patronage.


DEREK M. COHEN is Director of Right on Crime and the Center for Effective Justice at the Texas Public Policy Foundation. Cohen graduated with a B.S. in Criminal Justice from Bowling Green State University. He went on to complete an M.S. degree in Criminal Justice from the University of Cincinnati, where he also recently completed his Ph.D. dissertation on the long-term costs and outcomes associated with correctional programming. His academic work can be found in Policing: An International Journal of Police Strategies & Management and the forthcoming Encyclopedia of Theoretical Criminology and The Oxford Handbook on Police and Policing, and has scholarly articles currently under review. He has presented several papers to the American Society of Criminology, the Academy of Criminal Justice Sciences, and the American Evaluation Association on the implementation and outcomes of various criminal justice policy issues. Prior to joining the Foundation, Cohen was a research associate with University of Cincinnati’s Institute of Crime Science. He also taught classes in statistics, research methods, criminal procedure, and corrections.