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Private Prisons Cost More, But Do They Work Better?

The national debate about what kinds of prisons we should have is in a sorry state.

When America started switching over to prisons run by private companies, the idea was that state governments would save money. You know, the efficiencies of the free market and all that. But according to a report in The New York Times, in Arizona, a state that's been particularly aggressive about prison privatization, they don't. In fact, inmates in private prisons can cost the government as much as $1,600 more per year than inmates in state-run prisons.

So private prisons aren't necessarily cheaper than their public-sector counterparts. Matt Yglesias says this research demonstrates that there's no private-sector cost-saving fairy dust. He's right. But the debate about who runs prisons should not just be about cost. It should also take into account what we get for our money. You don't choose a restaurant based solely on the price of the food. You look at the menu and balance considerations of price against considerations of what you want to eat.

In the case of prisons, we care about more than just who keeps criminals confined for the lowest price. We also care about which prisons provide the best deal given the aims of the corrections system. And those aims are broader than just giving an offender a cell and a bed. They involve rehabilitation, minimizing recidivism, and, depending on your take on the morality of retribution, some measure of punishment. It's crazy to compare costs without looking at what you're buying and asking if it's what you want.

Arizona's private prisons cost more, per inmate. If those inmates have a recidivism rate of 20 percent within three years of release—the national average is closer to 70 percent—that would be a great deal. But unfortunately, neither public nor private prisons in Arizona are required to report their recidivism rates, so we don't know. In fact, there's very little data comparing recidivism rates in public and private prisons in general (a few small studies have shown private prisons have had slightly lower recidivism rates, but private prisons also sometimes cherry-pick the least difficult inmates, making a direct comparison difficult). It's truly bizarre to be debating the kind of prisons we want in the absence of that information.

The fact that the Times article doesn't even broach the question of how prisons are delivering shows just how impoverished the public debate on this issue has become.

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