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Privatizing Texas Jails Could Undermine Public Safety, Say Critics

April 14, 2011

AUSTIN, Texas - Texas lawmakers are trying to decide whether privatizing more jails would save money. Opponents fear such a measure would reverse recent reforms of the state's correctional system.

Ana Correa, executive director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says Texas now leads the nation in smart-on-crime policies - partly by being more selective about where in the system criminals wind up. She says privatization creates a conflict between corporate goals and citizen security.

"You create an interest - a group of people who are going to be profiting from criminal behavior - and those interests will hire lobbyists so that they can promote their agenda instead of the people agenda."

Of the 20 state jails in Texas, five are currently run by private companies. Lawmakers this week have been seeking to privatize the rest, if cost savings can be documented. Other proposals have included charging inmates more for medical care, and releasing critically ill inmates early to save treatment costs. Opponents to expanded privatization support a bill being considered today that would force greater oversight and transparency of private contracts.

Correa agrees that privatizing jails could save the state some money - but only in the short term. Private companies would be invested in putting as many people in jail for as long as possible, she says, which would undermine the state's trend toward a greater reliance on parole, probation and community-based supervision.

"The real savings is going to come out of making sure that only the people that need to be behind bars are behind bars. We can no longer afford to implement policies that are not giving us the return for our investment."

With profit as the main motive, Correa is also concerned that private companies would cut salaries and staff, leaving the state open to greater liability.

Privatization amendments have been advanced by State Rep. Erwin Cain (R-Como). The bill to increase oversight of privatized jails is being sponsored by State Rep. Armando Martinez (D-Weslaco).

Peter Malof, Public News Service - TX