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Private Prisons and Recidivism

Lots of interesting stuff in the weekend Wall Street Journal today.  The nonsubscriber links provided should be good for seven days.  The article most clearly on-topic is by Devlin Barrett on private prison companies and rehabilitation.

Damon Hininger, chief executive of Nashville, Tenn.-based Corrections Corp. of America, said in an interview that government clients are increasingly concerned about the long-term costs of housing inmates and are pushing CCA and other private operators to save them money by reducing recidivism, the number of inmates who are released only to do a repeat turn in prison.

He plans to expand the company's prison rehabilitation programs, drug counseling and its prisoner re-entry work in cities around the country. It's a significant shift for CCA, which has built a profitable business from incarcerating people--nearly 70,000 inmates are currently housed in more than 60 facilities. The company is the fifth-largest correction system in the country, after only the federal government and the states of California, Florida and Texas.

"This is a watershed moment for our company and we hope it will be for our entire industry,'' Mr. Hininger said. "We are determined to prove that we can play a leadership role in reducing recidivism and that we have every incentive to do so. The interests of government, taxpayers, shareholders, and communities are aligned. We all just need to recognize that and commit to that.''
My reaction to stories like this is "yes, but..."
Just before that quote, the articles cites a RAND study purporting to show that money spent on prison education programs is returned many fold in reduced reincarceration costs.  I do not doubt for a minute that prison education is worthwhile, but I am skeptical of the extent of the claims.

RAND's press release is here.  The full study is here.  The study is a meta-analysis, a technique that attempts to put together the results of other studies.  I am always skeptical of such efforts.  The underlying studies may be flawed, biased, or even outright dishonest, and that is particularly likely on a topic with political overtones.  I've poked beneath the surface of more than one agenda-driven study and found that it does not really support the bottom-line conclusion.

At the end of the article is a statement I find more credible.  (This is a correction in the online version, a bit different from the print version.)

Jason Clark, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which contracts with CCA at some facilities, said the state began a push to expand rehabilitation and re-entry programs, which led to a drop in its recidivism rate from 25.3% to 22.6% over a three-year period.

"Those are real numbers and real savings because less people are coming back into the prison system,'' Mr. Clark said. "We believe that continuing to invest in diversion and treatment initiatives is the best strategy to maintain a stable and successful criminal-justice system.''
A drop of 2.7% over a three-year period, multiplied by the number of people exiting Texas prisons over that time, is a significant number of people.  Those are real savings, as Mr. Clark says, not only in dollars but in the direction of people's lives and in avoiding the victimization of the people who might have been victims to that significant number of crimes.

But 2.7% is not a miracle.  It is not a solution to our crime problem.  It is not a solution to our prison capacity problem.  Most people getting out of prison will either go straight or go back to crime regardless of what programs are provided, and the programs make the difference for a few percent on the ragged edge.

Decades ago we had boundless faith in experts to fix what was wrong with the misguided souls in our prisons.  A lot of people were needlessly murdered, raped, and robbed before we woke up to our error.  We must not forget that history and must not repeat it.  Rehabilitation is one useful tool in the toolbox.  It makes some difference at the margins.  It is not a cure-all.  Deluding ourselves that it is is not "smart on crime" at all.  It is criminal stupidity.

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