In August, the Justice Department announced its plans to end the use of private prisons on the federal level. This has been celebrated as a large step towards solving the US’s mass criminalization problem. But is it?
Of 211,000 federal prisoners, only 16%—just over 3,000— are housed in private prisons. The other 78,000 U.S. prisoners in private prisons reside in state prisons, and are unaffected by the Justice Department decision.
It’s not clear that eliminating private prisons on the state level would alleviate mass incarceration or greatly improve prison quality. The problems of overcrowding, budget overruns, and high recidivism rates that plague private prisons are also present in government-run facilities. Unlike private prisons, however, it can be much harder to shut down or resolve these problems in government-run prisons:
As Reason writers Leonard Gilroy and Adrian Moore observed last year:
If dissatisfied with performance, a government can cancel a prison contract with a private company. By contrast, the government tends not to fire itself, and the watchmen ultimately watch themselves.“]
The real source of prison overpopulation isn’t privatization, but a government policy: overcriminalization, mandatory minimum sentencing, immigration restrictions, and the War on Drugs.
While only 16% of federal prisoners currently reside in private prisons, half of all federal prisoners are locked up for drug offenses. In the United States, 1 in 5 incarcerated people are in for a drug offense. With 2.3 million people incarcerated in the United States, that’s 460,000 in prison for drug offenses alone.
This chart from the Prison Policy Initiative breaks the numbers down even further.
Improving the quality of criminal justice is an admirable goal, but misdiagnosing the problem won’t fix the system. If the government wants to solve mass incarceration, it needs to take responsibility for its own contributions to the problem.