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The high cost of incarceration

Arizona should consider cheaper alternatives to building the nation's largest women's prison
By Ted Downing
Sunday, 3 August 2003

As a state legislator my job is to keep a weather eye on the horizon and help proactively deal with issues before they reach a crisis level. One storm brewing in our growing state is the corrections crisis. Simply put, we have too many prisoners and too few beds. However, a proposal that is being pushed forward to add a large private women's prison may be rushing to judgment and not be in the best interest of Arizona.

Private prisons are a relatively new idea. They turn a basic function of state government into a business intended to make a profit. In the short term, private prisons appear cost effective. The average cost of a low-security private prison inmate bed is $41.68 a day versus a state prison bed cost of $47.34 a day. The average costs are higher for women in public prisons, about $60 per day. These costs include land, building, improvements, programs, personnel, and medical and state administrative expenses. With 30,898 prisoners, incremental savings is not chump-change.

However, the long-term costs show a very different picture. Private companies sign long-term contracts with state government - much as one might prepay a non-refundable cost of a hotel rooms. This means state government must earmark future revenue to meet this obligation. The cost of the proposed Marana prison is an encumbrance, a nearly $1 billion set-aside over the next two decades. Meeting this obligation is even more difficult given that the Legislature did not appropriate the $31 million requested by the governor for the Department of Corrections in this year's budget.

The status quo approach of creating more and more prisons is costing Arizona taxpayers a fortune. Maybe we should think outside the box and look at alternatives to another bricks-and-mortar solution. Consider this: The Marana prison is expected to hold 3,200 women inmates at an average incarceration cost per inmate around $20,000 a year. Currently, more three-fourths of the women prisoners in Arizona are nonviolent offenders, most of whom are considered low risk by the Department of Corrections. Nearly 70 percent of them have children under 18. Rather than incarceration, let's assume we place slightly less than half of female inmates (1,440) under intense probation for five years at a cost of $2,639 a year per inmate. If we took this approach for women, we would free up existing prison beds rather than build new privatized ones, and we would reduce our costs to $19 million a year instead of $157.7 million a year.

I have to wonder if Arizonans feel eight times safer with these nonviolent women locked up in prison than they would with the women under intense probation and learning how to readjust to life outside of prison? What improvements in health, education, or public safety could benefit from another $140 million saved this way every year?

I think it's time to rethink the need for building the nation's largest private women's prison - in Marana or anywhere in Arizona. A billion-dollar-plus set-aside for a private women's prison shuts the door to alternative innovative solutions to our corrections crisis, limiting the options that our new director of Corrections, Dora Schriro, will be proposing to solve our crisis. She faces the short-term challenge of increasing beds. Then, she must find a cost-effective way to preserve public safety and meet the correctional needs of our growing state. Let's give our new director the fiscal flexibility to comprehensively assess our immediate and long-term corrections needs and propose an alternative to the same old, costly approach.

The cure to our problem is not to build more prisons - private or public. This just perpetuates the problem of the overuse of prisons as punishment. The real question is what are the most socially beneficial and cost-effective punishments? Some need to be locked up - for a long time, if not for life. Being under intense probation is also punishment, it is just cheaper. It's unquestionably more effective to rehabilitate non-violent offenders and, if done properly, it yields more beneficial returns to public safety.

* Ted Downing, state representative from Tucson, is a member of the House Judiciary Committee

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