Fact-Free Debate on Private Sector Corrections Has Unintended Consequences

A controversy in Colorado earlier this year has come to exemplify everything that’s wrong with the debate over the private sector’s role in our nation’s criminal justice and immigration systems. A knee-jerk, fact-free decision had harmful human consequences that everyone should want to avoid.

This past summer, the Denver City Council, in an effort to protest federal immigration policy, voted to end its contracts with the private contractors that own and operate the city’s halfway houses. Little work had been done to understand the reality of the private sector’s role in immigration and what the actual impact of the city’s vote would be. 

It turns out that for a variety of reasons – including local zoning laws – the city had no backup plan to continue helping the affected halfway house residents. This meant 500-plus men and women were at risk of being sent back to jail instead of continuing the care and services they need to successfully re-enter the community. 

Understandably, residents were furious because of how hard they were working to finish their sentences and prepare to get back to their families – to have a successful second chance. “Taking this away is going to set a lot of people up for failure,” said one resident. Said another: “I wake up every day thinking I still got a chance to go back to prison.”

Denver Mayor Michael Hancock, a Democrat, was clear: “Some people decided to play politics with the lives of these 500 individuals as well as almost 200 employees to make a political statement.” 

Today, a fact-free debate driven by emotion and pure politics is leading to bad policy outcomes across the country, with negative consequences for those we all care most about: the incarcerated and detained men and women in our care. 

Let’s start with the facts.

For more than 30 years, the private sector has partnered with local, state and federal governments led by both Democrats and Republicans in order to relieve overcrowded public correctional facilities and help address some of the nation’s toughest problems in a cost-effective manner.

At the same time, the industry represents a very small slice of the criminal justice system: Just 8 percent of incarcerated people are cared for in contractor-operated facilities today. 

Another key fact about the detention side of the equation: The three major companies in the industry do not operate facilities for the purpose of housing unaccompanied minors or have any contracts whatsoever with U.S. Customs and Border Patrol or the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Unfortunately, the negative consequences of misinformation about private contractors go far beyond Colorado. A similar scenario is playing out today in California, which recently passed a law banning all contractor-operated corrections and detention facilities in the state. Contractors were asked to help ease the state’s prison overcrowding crisis in the mid 2000s, when state prisons were 200 percent over capacity, and one inmate was dying every week unnecessarily because of the inadequate medical services.

This short-sighted legislation will likely have negative consequences for those its proponents claim to care about most. It could result in moving Immigration and Customs Enforcement detainees with family in the state far away from their relatives or into inappropriate facilities, like local jails, where they’d be forced to live among charged or convicted criminals, rather than in modern contractor-operated civil facilities with health care, legal support and other resources. It would also force incarcerated men and women back into a public prison system that is currently 135 percent over-capacity.

This fall, former President Barack Obama made an important point about the need for tolerance and humility in our current political debate. He said that the world is complex, advised us not to be so judgmental, and that we might even share things in common with those we fight.

We couldn’t agree more. There are few more complex issues than the challenges facing our nation’s criminal justice and immigration systems. And we share the concern of people on all sides about the real-world impacts of these policies on some of the most vulnerable individuals in our society. 

But to get good policy, we need thoughtful and reasoned conversation based on facts. 

Alexandra Wilkes is national spokeswoman for the Day 1 Alliance, a trade association representing private sector contractors helping address corrections and detention challenges in the United States.


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