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Privatizing prisons bad idea politically and economically

December 17, 2003
Hampton Union
Exeter News-Letter
Rockingham News

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Gov. Craig Benson has a problem. New Hampshire does not have the tax structure sufficient to finance the many programs its citizens want. So, like a good conservative Republican, Benson has decided to attack the spending side of the ledger.

For example, last year he vetoed the state budget lawmakers passed overwhelmingly for being too profligate. And last week he announced the results of a study by the commission charged with finding ways to make state government more efficient.

The commissionís report yielded a number of common-sense initiatives that would result in savings to New Hampshire taxpayers in excess of $400 million. For instance, eliminating redundant back-office clerical functions and asking state employees to bear some responsibility for their health insurance premiums are ideas that make good sense. We look forward to a more complete vetting of the committeeís ideas.

We do, however, take issue with the commissionís plan to privatize the stateís penal system. Privatize the prisons? Thatís right, let private contractors do all the work.

One of the biggest single-cost savings would come from handing management of our four state prisons and 10,000 prisoners over to Corrections Corporation of America. This, says the commission, will save the state $19 million a year.

We oppose the commissionís recommendations to privatize New Hampshireís prisons on ideological, political and public policy grounds. Itís simply a bad idea.

To begin with, even the most parsimonious skinflint agrees incarceration of dangerous criminals and protection of its citizens is a fundamental role of state government.

Politically speaking, this idea runs the risk of furthering Bensonís reputation as a gadfly. This commissionís report will, in all probability, sit on a shelf and collect dust like many of the governorís other ill-conceived ideas - closing the Goffstown prison, looting the state retirement system to balance the budget, illegally reimporting prescription drugs from Canada; the list goes on.

These diminish Benson politically. Either he is not serious about his proposals or he does not have the political capital to see them through. Either way, he is shrinking in office.

Finally, as a matter of public policy, the commissionís proposal to privatize the prisons is simply too risky to enact.

For starters, Benson would immediately fire hundreds of people at the Department of Corrections. Second, quality control is a genuine concern when it comes to privatizing government services. The record on prison privatization across America is too short to measure.

Finally, the commission looked only at Correction Corporation of America as a prospective vendor. The state of New Hampshire canít - and shouldnít - simply hand over management of our state prison system to a private company without first collecting bids.

The commissionís recommendations would need approval by the Legislature to take effect. We urge our representatives to kill this bad idea early if the governor has the bad sense to go forward on this recommendation.

- Portsmouth Herald

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