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The policy process and outcome for privatization of prisons in the United States of America Essay

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Updated: May 20th, 2019

Introduction

The concept of decision making is unquestionably critical with respect to studying and understanding the procedure through which policies are both developed and implemented. A debate has ensued regarding the relative advantages of a rationalistic model in comparison to incremental approach of decision making in the public policy making process.

Nonetheless, knowledge about the weaknesses of rational decision making in institutions has wielded a considerable sway on the direction of the sociologically-based efforts in the sphere of organizational analysis (Smith & May 1980, p.197). It is against this backdrop that this paper will analyze the policy process and outcome for privatization of prisons in the United States of America using both the rationalist approach and the Incrementalist approach.

Models of decision making

The Rationalistic Approach

The decision making process under the rationalistic model is based on the following four elements:

  • A search procedure to ascertain goals.
  • Devising objectives after search.
  • Selecting (strategies) approaches to carry out objectives.
  • Appraising the outcomes (Smith & May 1980, p.198).

It is important to mention that rationalistic model is broadly viewed as a conception with respect to the manner in which all types of decisions are and ought to be made. In other words, an actor discerns a dilemma, states a goal, considers alternative strategies available and selects the best alternative with respect to their respective advantages (Fischer, Miller & Sidney 2007, p. 173).

Nonetheless, the rationalistic model has been criticized extensively. First, the rationalist approach is deemed as being parochial. The model ignores a number of political variables that constrains the amount of alternatives available with respect to the power of related vested interests.

Many decision makers within the policy settings work in environments with numerous limits. As a result, they do not have the liberty to assess all possible alternatives and are obliged to shortlist alternatives that are obviously not the best ones (Smith & May 1980, p.198). Second, the rationalistic model is perceived to be value biased. For example, in an organizational perspective, the rationalistic approach is indicted of favouring senior managers over junior staff whose valuable inputs are neglected.

Third, the approach is perceived as extremely inflexible in drawing sharp differences between facts and values, ends and means, and values and decisions. What is regarded as a fact is particularly determined by the values and interests of the parties involved (Smith & May 1980, p.198).

According to Smith and May (1980), the rationalistic model is finally accused of being unrealistic (p. 200). Even when computer technology is employed to re-examine and appraise all feasible solutions to a problem so as to choose the best strategy, the resources used to carry out the search usually surpass the savings realized by adopting the preferred strategy. This is one of the problems that the policy makers encounter in making a decision on whether or not to commission research (Smith & May 1980, p. 200).

Incrementalist Approach

The Incrementalist model has also been a subject of condemnations. The model is censured for being old-fashioned because it only addresses short-term and counteractive change and underpins inertia. Nevertheless, it is deemed as valid approach in circumstances where the outcomes of the current policies are generally acceptable and if the nature of the dilemma is somewhat stable. In addition, the model is considered appropriate if the means for addressing the dilemma are incessantly present.

The Incrementalist model is also censured for being unfair because excellent decisions are considered subject to their suitability in a given context but not on the basis of their ranking on a specified objective assessment criterion. Consequently, this model is believed to be in favour of the interest of the political elite at the expense of the interests of the disadvantaged and politically disorganized (Smith & May 1980, p.201).

The policy process

Any discourse regarding the public policy process must lend emphasis on the nature of power in the state as well as propositions regarding who wields power. This means that both the public policy process and political process are closely related. For example, in an attempt to explain the meaning of political analysis, Smith and May (1980) asserts that politics should be defined in such a manner to include the entire social sphere (p. 201).

The repercussion of this definition is that practices, processes and events should not be branded as extra-political or non-political merely on the basis of the specific framework in which they take place. All practices, processes and events that take place within the social field can be political and thus subject to political analysis (Smith & May 1980, p. 201).

Sociology is another discipline that plays an integral role in understanding the policy process. It can be argued that the sociology of organizations plays a vital role in understanding the policy process that takes place within organizations. The sociology of organizations is especially an integral sphere with respect to the analysis of the conversion of policy into action as well as investigating issues related to the actions of employees within complex organizations (Smith & May 1980, p.201).

Privatization of prisons in the United States

Privatization of prisons is a general concept that describes a government policy whereby one or several prisons operations are outsourced to private sector. The policy may entail outsourcing some aspects relevant to constructing a new prison such as finance, construction and design.

In some circumstances, the private organization may possess the facility for a period of time. Under this situation, the private firm receives payment from the government to run the prison as well as the operating costs of the detention facility. Usually, the government put the prison out to tender once it opts to privatize a detention facility.

The length of a contract for prison management typically range between five and 20 years and it spells out the services to be offered and the expected quality of those services. The management cost to be paid under the contract typically embraces a performance-based fee. The contract usually stipulates a range of other issues including insurance and indemnities, reporting and record keeping obligations, staff enrolment, compliance with policies and laws, and suspension and termination of the contract (Roth 2004, p.3).

The concept of prison privatization started in mid 1980s in the US and was swiftly adopted by other countries. According to Jing (2006), privatization of prison refers to the transfer of inmates to privately managed detention facilities subject to an agreement whereby the outsourced inmates are lawfully and fiscally subject to states but are directly incarcerated in private prisons (p.158).

Currently, there are well over 100 private prisons in the US. What’s more, the US has the largest number of inmates in private prisons (approximately 94,000 prisoners) although this figure represents only 7% of the entire population of inmates in the country (Roth 2004, p.5).

Circumstance in which private prisons emerged in the US

The policy related to the privatization of prisons in the United States started as a result of an emergency in the country’s penal system in the early 1980s (Chang & Thompkins 2002, p. 45). During a phase of unparalleled growth in the population of inmates, (mainly as a result of sound policies and laws such as the war on drugs), detention facilities across the nation became congested. Congestion resulted in inhumane conditions in old detention facilities.

As a result, many prisoners initiated legal proceedings against the government. Federal Courts ruled in favour of the inmates because they found the conditions of imprisonment in many detention facilities across the nation to be inhumane. Consequently, the Courts directed state governments to rectify the problem (Roth 2004, p.7). While state government were under immense pressure to remedy the situation, they did not have adequate resources to construct new prisons.

Under this environment, many states had to consider other alternatives and the private sector reacted to this need in the shape of privately owned firms that specialize in the construction and administration of detention facilities.

Thus, many states deemed the private sector as a smart solution because the state would avoid the problem of raising extra capital if a private firm funded, built and managed a new detention facility (Lundahl & Kunz 2009, p.383; Chang & Thompkins 2002, p.45). What’s more, many states assumed that the private sector could construct new detention facilities faster and cheaper and thereby generate savings in operational outlays (Roth 2004, p.8; Medina 2010, p.4).

It is important to mention that the penal crisis was taking place at a period of key political and ideological development. For example, privatization was a predominant concept on the political agenda of the New Right. What’s more, there was an escalating interest in privatization across the country. For instance, a certain US official commented that any proposal could develop into a policy if it carried the tag privatization (Roth 2004, p.8).

However, the drive towards privatization of prisons in the US attracted severe criticisms from the public and media. For instance, a nationwide discourse ensued about the desirability, propriety and legality of privatized prisons. In addition, a number of criminal justice professional groups (i.e. the National Sheriff’s Association, the American Bar Association and the American Correctional Association) opposed this move (Roth 2004, p.9).

The principal mode used by the government for outsourcing private prison has been for the state to make a decision on whether or not outsource for certain services such as beds required for state prisons. The government then looks for a supplier willing to supply these beds. Nonetheless, another trend has emerged whereby a number of private companies have taken the risk of constructing private detention facilities without first securing any guarantee of inmates from corrections agencies Chang & Thompkins 2002, p.45.

Once the facility is constructed, the private firm advertises their new detention facility to corrections departments found throughout the United States. In essence, these privately constructed detention centres are basically a national market because they can hold inmates from different state corrections departments (Roth 2004, p.24; Chang & Thompkins 2002, p.45).

Privatization of prisons in the United States was brought about by political transformations that started in late 1960s. It is worthy to note that political factors directly swayed privatization of prisons and indirectly swayed it by producing economic and pragmatic inducements. In addition, neo-liberalism and conventional social control were the two main political catalysts with autonomous sway on privatization of prisons.

Nonetheless, they were both grounded in the conservative practice and its renaissance between late 1960s and early 1970s as a reaction to the socio-economic disasters. For instance, the two proposals by President Reagan “get tough on crime” and “get government off our backs, out of our pockets” (Jing 2006, p.161) depicted the importance of conservatism doctrine. These political inclinations have restructured the context and tasks, and consequently the manner in which detention systems in the US are managed.

For example, the emergence of conventional social control represented a notion of state expansion. Conventional social control designates the reason of an offense to individual rational choice as opposed to undesirable social environment.

This viewpoint emphasizes a punishment-based custodial state as a principal form of crime management and resorts to the employment of comprehensive criminalization, harsh prison terms as well as correctional management thereby eliminating the moral and political impediments of prison privatization.

In spite of declining crime rates, new criminal justice policies embraced the upsurge of inmate populations. Consequently, these policies brought about functional problems of correctional systems such as increased budgeting pressures and unconstitutional congestion (Jing 2006, p.161).

The incessant decline in the gap between detention rate and crime/arrest rates can be attributed to the severe post-detainment state actions (imposition and administration of sentence). Prior to 1970s, the liberal justice practice prevailed whereby the government pursued the rehabilitative goal of translating law offenders into law abiders. Afterwards, the United States justice system was slowly converted to a determinate system.

The emergence of conservatism in crime management was demonstrated by methodical efforts to widen the range of criminalization as well as toughening law enforcement. For example, Anti-drug Abuse Act [1986] was enacted to combat drug related offenses. It is important to mention that this Act alone accounted for 55% of federal inmates in 2001.

In addition, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act [1984] stipulated fixed minimum prison terms for some offenses, particularly drug and violence-related crimes. What’s more, several states enacted three-strike decrees to deal with recidivism. Furthermore, in 2000, approximately 29 states had approved the federal truth-in-sentencing standards in order to reduce discretionary release of lawbreakers.

Consequently, the release rate of inmates declined from 37% to 31% between 1990 and 1998 whereas the mean time prison term increased from 22 months to 28 months during the same period (Schneider 1999, p.199). Therefore, politicization of criminal justice policies from late 1960s transferred crime control policies to the justice system. In addition, it provided the impetus for state governments to privatize prisons in order to reduce congestion in the old detention facilities (Jing 2006, p.162).

The emergence of neoliberal policies that encouraged a nominal and an indirect state is another key political phenomenon that precipitated the surge toward privatization of prisons in the US (Flynn & Cannon 2009, p. 3). It deserves merit to mention that neoliberal economic policies were first adopted by the government in early 1970s in reaction to crises such as economic slump, high interest rates, inflation and oil shocks.

The mainstay of neo-liberalism is an array of economic policies that redefine the relationship between the state and society with reliable backing of a market-oriented state and economy such as decentralization, retrenchment, privatization, deregulation and rule of the market. In light of the enormous prison economy it faced, the neoliberal US government wanted to restructure both its distributive as well as redistributive expenses (Jing 2006, p.162).

First, neoliberal principles compelled states to reassign detention-related government costs to the private sector. The prudence to dispense the newly dispensed public expenses to private prisons offered an ideal chance for the government to control the growth of direct correctional official procedure.

What’s more, privatization offered an ideal chance for political elites to create an assimilated market of correctional labour, vitiate correctional unions and compensate or fragment political coalitions. In addition, neoliberal correctional restructuring eliminated welfare from correctional system thereby minimizing correctional expenses (Jing 2006, p.162).

Thus, privatization of prisons reunited the conflict between the nominal, non-intrusive state function across neo-liberalism policy areas and the liberal function of government in social control under social conventionalism. In essence, privatization of prisons improved the state’s punishing capacity as well as minimizing the role of the state in direct management of punishment (Flynn & Cannon 2009, p. 3).

In nutshell, political variables were the fundamental impetuses behind privatization of detention facilities in the US whereas instrumental aspects had a direct sway on the privatization of prisons. The corrective tendency in crime management generated demand for corrections whereas neoliberal economic policies favoured market as an alternative strategy of satisfying the demand.

Thus, prison dilemmas, frequently represented through instrumental predicaments (i.e. financial difficulties and congestion), were deeply entrenched in politics and their answers were extremely conditioned by political perspectives (Jing 2006, p.163).

Evaluation of policy outcome for prison privatization

Abt Associates Inc report

In 1997, the United States Congress directed the Attorney general to carry out an inquest into prison privatization. The Attorney General was also expected to reassess relevant legal issues as well as comparative investigation of the cost efficiency and viability of public and private sector, local government and state operations of corrections and prisons programs across all security levels.

Consequently, Abt Associates Inc was commissioned to carry out the study (Roth 2004, p.88). This section will discuss the findings in the report in terms of the relative costs and quality of prison privatization in the United States.

With respect to whether privatization of correctional facilities saves money, the report stated that in some cases, outsourcing of prison services to private sector saves the taxpayers money. Nonetheless, there are some nominal disparities. Some of these noticeable disparities may not represent real savings but may rather be accounting relics, particularly those related to lower projected outlays of government operational costs (Roth 2004, p.88).

Other noticeable sources of saving in several states represent inferior expenditure for inmate health care as well as other areas of facility operations such as inferior earnings for junior employees in a number of jurisdictions. Thus, with respect to savings and costs, the report concluded that a limited number of current studies provide insufficient proof of any broad pattern.

Several states may be eager to pay soaring costs for private detention if they require beds to resolve short-term deficits. In other states, costs for outsourcing may undeniably be lower compared to direct public imprisonment. Nevertheless, the report found that it was hard to determine savings and costs on the basis of the postulations made by the analyst as well as the limited data available (Roth 2004, p.89).

Bureau of Justice Assistance report

In 2001, the Bureau of Justice Assistance prepared a report on emerging issues on private prisons using the findings of a number of studies carried out in the United States. The report evaluated prior studies done on the cost benefits of private prisons. In summary, the report concluded that the cost benefits of prison privatization had not occurred to the level guaranteed by the private sector.

Although there are some instances where prison privatization resulted in cost savings, numerous other cases demonstrates that such savings have not been achieved. With respect to previous studies, the report concluded that the best study that could be relied upon was the Tennessee study that demonstrated minimal disparities with regard to cost savings (Roth 2004, p.90).

Therefore, the Bureau of Justice Assistance report revealed that the private sector had merely imitated the techniques employed by the public sector with regard to prison management and staffing. It appears that the only effort made by the private sector was to trim down the expenses associated with the inmate management model used by the public sector. This means that the private sector was probably employing a more competent model that basically imitated the one used by the public sector.

The report did not find any adequate data to substantiate the notion that prisons managed by the private sector generated cost benefits compared to prisons managed by the public sector.

On a similar note, there were no authoritative facts to substantiate the claim that the quality of imprisonment and prisoner services in private detention facilities was better than those in publicly operated facilities. It thus appears that private detention centres can function in a similar fashion as publicly operated prisons for some types of prisoners such as minimum security (Roth 2004, p.90).

A national Survey of state prison privatization

A national survey of state prison privatization was also carried out in 1997 and involved 65 private detention facilities in the United States. The purpose of this study was compare and contrast private and public detention facilities on a number of issues deemed to be vital pointers regarding the efficacy and efficiency of privatization of state prisons.

The findings of this survey suggested that private prisons were not significantly different from public prisons with three critical exceptions. First, the rate of major confrontations between prison staff and inmates was higher in private prisons than in public prisons. Second, the number of employees enlisted by privately managed facilities is about 15% lower compared to the number of employees enlisted by publicly operated confinement centres.

Third, private prison centres seem to lack management information system (MIS) competences. The report also found that private prisons frequently encountered management problems due to lack of qualified staff in important positions. The escalating rates of misconduct from prisoners at private detention facilities was attributed to the enlistment of scantly trained and inexperienced staff (Roth 2004, p.91).

References

Chang, T & Thompkins, D 2002, ‘Corporations go to prisons: The expansion of corporate power in the correctional industry’, Labour Studies Journal, vol. 22, pp. 45-69.

Fischer, F, Miller, G & Sidney, M 2007, Handbook of Public Policy Analysis: Theory, Politics and Methods, CRC Press, London.

Flynn, M & Cannon, C 2009, The Privatization of Immigration Detention: Towards a Global View, The Graduate Institute, Geneva.

Jing, Y 2006, ‘Prison privatization in the US: A study of causes and magnitude’, Chinese Publicly Affairs Quarterly, vol. 2 no. 2, pp. 157-183.

Lundahl, B & Kunz, C 2009, ‘Prison Privatization: A Meta-analysis of cost and quality of confinement indicators’, Research on Social Work Practice, vol. 19 no. 4, pp. 383-394.

Medina, B 2010, Constitutional Limits to Privatization: The Israeli Supreme Court Decision to Invalidate Prison Privatization, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.

Roth, L 2004, Privatisation of Prisons, NSW Parliamentary Library Research Service, New South Wales.

Schneider, A 1999, ‘Public-Private Partnerships in the U.S. Prison System’, The American Behavioural Scientist, vol. 43 no. 1, pp. 192-208.

Smith, G & May, D 1980, ‘The artificial debate between rationalist and incremental models of decision making’, Policy and Politics, vol. 8, pp.197-211.

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