Friday, April 8, 2011

The Danger of Privatizing Juvenile Corrections

A recent case in Pennsylvania is a frightening reminder of the dangers of local governments relying on private corporations to provide public services. Judge Mark Ciaverella, of Luzerne County, PA, was charged and later convicted of receiving millions of dollars in kickbacks for sending juveniles to a private correctional facility. The judge sent thousand of kids to private detention facilities that were run by personal acquaintances for the payments. Some of the youth were sent away for petty theft offenses. One kid later committed suicide after being incarcerated. Although this was an extraordinary case of personal corruption, this was also systematic failure on a larger scale. Most of the juveniles in Luzerne County did not have access to lawyers, which made them more likely to plea guilty and vulnerable to Ciaverella's malice intent. Furthermore, there was obviously a lack of oversight by the County that this corrupt "Cash for Kids" scheme was able to run as long as it did. The National Institute for Law and Equity argued for more oversight by local governments that rely on private corrections facilities and the prohibition of lobbying by corporations who run jails for profits. The trend of privatizing juvenile correctional facilities, and the problems associated with it, has been going on for years. For local governments that are financially struggling to provide services, privatizing juvenile corrections is an appealing method of cutting costs. However, Fisher (2008) warns that privatizing public services can lead to problems if local governments cannot afford to properly monitor the private supplier or cannot easily define the service that is to be provided. For a local government, quality service by a private correction facility would mean a lower recidivism rate by juvenile offenders. However, if a corporation gets paid more for incarcerating more kids, they have little incentive to "correct" the kid (and if the staff are paid low wages, they will be even less motivated to help oppositional kids). In extreme cases, like Luzerne County, corporations may be inclined to funnel more kids toward their facility. Juvenile corrections is an expensive, labor-intensive job for local governments. However, it seems to be both fiscally and morally unsound to rely on private corporations to rehabilitate young offenders. Businesses have no reason to reduce profits, so why would an organization in the "corrections" business be any different?

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