Jail Competition Can Unlock Savings for Shelby County

April 18, 2006 10:12PM

By Geoffrey F. Segal “The fastest way to save money and increase value is to force public institutions to compete,” says Government reform expert and author David Osborne. It seems that Shelby County Commissioner Bruce Thompson has read Osborne’s latest book. Commissioner Thompson and at least two other commissioners should be applauded for their efforts to bring efficiency to Shelby County government through a public debate on the merits of competition. Yet these efforts have met stiff resistance from the Sheriff and the County Mayor. Truth be told, Thompson and his colleagues have an obligation to the citizens of Shelby County to manage the jail in the most efficient manner possible. It is their duty to consider all options thoroughly—even when that includes shopping around. It is estimated that a private jail could save Shelby County taxpayers $25 million. Opponents don’t believe it. However, their unwillingness to even consider or study this option is appalling. Rather than fight for the efficient and effective use of taxpayer dollars, Shelby County residents are left with a classic example of an attempt by the Sheriff and Mayor to avoid a little competition. Indeed, a competitive environment will likely produce the most effective result—public or private. Time and again, subjecting services to competition has proven to be the most effective tool to produce high quality, cost-effective public services no matter who ultimately wins the business. Competition gives Shelby County leaders an opportunity to prove that they are providing a good quality, efficient service. They should embrace this opportunity—unless the leaders have something to fear. Fear seems to drive the opposition to competition: The Sheriff is afraid that competition would turn up the heat on Shelby County’s own jails. This fear comes at the detriment of taxpayers. The wealth of research available indicates that a fair, open and transparent competitive system will deliver high quality, low cost services to taxpayers. The fact of the matter is that cost savings are real. More than half of the states use private prisons because they offer lower costs—and the research backs them up. Reason Foundation identified 28 studies comparing the costs of private and government prisons, and 22 of them found that private prisons cost less—on average about 15 percent less. The other six studies found private and government prison costs to be similar. None found private prisons more costly. While cost is important in running prisons, the quality and performance of a facility is at even more important. Again, numerous studies suggest that private facilities operate at least as well as government run facilities. The most recent review, a Federal comparison of a private facility against several public facilities found that the private facility had “very efficient performance, [was] fully responsive to contract requirements, [and had] more than adequate results.” Essentially, it was determined that the contractor delivered what it promised in the contract, and what the contracting agency expected. In addition, the power of the contract has been overshadowed by the rhetoric. Concerns about “surrendering control” are used to attack the idea. However, a contract gives county officials more power over how work is performed, how the staff is trained and what salary and benefit packages look like. Most private prisons’ staff training exceeds county requirements for county staff. The contractor even guarantees performance—does the County do that? Osborne said it best, “Radical change [is] rooted in common sense, not ideology.” Taxpayers deserve an honest debate that considers all options. We are well beyond the experimental phase with corrections outsourcing—they have proven their value in many different contexts. Shielding Shelby County jails from competition benefits no one except the Sheriff and his staff. Shelby County should waste no time in implementing a fair, open and transparent competitive system and benefiting from its success