Virginia's ongoing fiscal challenges present an opportunity for policymakers and prison administrators to "think outside the box" in transforming and right-sizing correctional systems. Reducing crime and managing the costs and performance of the corrections system demand that we find ways to reduce recidivism. Two new innovations from Florida and the UK represent major advances on this front, and ones that policymakers in Virginia would do well to consider.
The budget recently signed into law by Florida Governor Rick Scott authorizes a cutting-edge public-private partnership (PPP) that will privatize nearly all correctional services in an 18-county region of South Florida. But this will not be just a vanilla – albeit large-scale – outsourcing. Rather, it represents a groundbreaking, 2.0 approach to corrections PPPs that will hold providers directly accountable for reducing recidivism, expanding offender treatment and programming and achieving other key rehabilitation and safety goals.
In short, Florida is piloting a major transformation in its corrections system, and they're using PPPs to achieve it.
Current state correctional systems can generally be characterized as a disjointed collection of facilities and services, including prisons, halfway houses, probation systems, home monitoring, programming and rehabilitation. Offenders move between these facilities and services with little continuity of knowledge of their particular history and rehabilitation progress, leading to little accountability and poor results for the successful return of these individuals to society. With such an inefficient system design, it should come as no surprise that recidivism is a persistent national challenge, with offenders in many states more likely to return to prison than remain free upon release.
Applying a continuum of care approach within a state correctional system would help solve this challenge and maximize programming's effects on recidivism. It would coordinate and link evaluations, programs and resources for an inmate across all facilities and levels of care, maximizing the effect of the care and programming he receives. Spending a lot of resources on uneven, uncoordinated programming for an inmate across various facilities and levels of care delivers a poor return on expenditures – the results fail to justify the high costs of programming. Coordination across a continuum of care would maximize the value of every tax dollar spent.
Florida's recently authorized PPP will be the first attempt to create a continuum of care in corrections. The private manager will have the flexibility and incentives to provide a thorough continuum, coordinating facilities, programming and management decisions to optimize outcomes, ensuring that inmates are always in the right place at the right time for the right programs, continuously evaluating, modifying and coordinating programming as appropriate.
Florida's continuum of care PPP is expected to yield hundreds of millions in savings over the long term by strategically tying cost savings to improvements in system performance. The budget language details a wide range of mandatory performance criteria vendors will be evaluated on, including (but not limited to):
- percentage of inmates who successfully complete transition, rehabilitation, or support programs without subsequent recommitment to community supervision or prison for 24 months after release;
- percentage of inmates successfully completing drug abuse education or treatment programs;
- number of inmates receiving substance abuse services;
- percentage of inmates successfully completing mandatory literacy, GED education and vocational education programs;
- percentage of inmates needing special education programs who participate in special education (federal law) programs;
- average increase in grade level achieved by inmates participating in educational programs;
- the number of batteries committed by inmates on one or more persons per 1,000 inmates; and
- the number of escapes from the secure perimeter of major institutions.
Overall, this new PPP approach will align the financial incentives of the private sector with government's goals of maintaining public safety, reducing recidivism, improving rehabilitation and lowering costs.
The Florida initiative draws heavy inspiration from the sensible criminal justice reforms underway in the United Kingdom. Like a number of states, the U.K. is struggling with fiscal pressures, rising corrections costs and persistent recidivism, and they're embracing PPPs as part of their larger reform strategy.
The United Kingdom's left-right coalition government recently announced three new prison contracts estimated to save over $350 million (USD) over their lifetime, with one representing the first of several pilot projects for a "payment by results" (PBR) approach. Ten percent of the private operator's payment will depend on lowering the reconviction rates of released offenders by at least five percentage points. In essence, the private prison operator will be paid more for keeping people from coming back to prison.
As U.K. Justice Secretary Kenneth Clarke told Parliament in April:
"[P]ublic protection isn't just about how we manage prisons in order to punish people. It's also about how we achieve genuine and long-lasting reductions in crime by cutting re-offending. […] PBR is central to our rehabilitation reform plans because it means we can concentrate on paying for what works to reduce re-offending. The current system funds services but not outcomes […] PBR looks to change this by rewarding performance against the outcomes specified in a contract."
Though different in structure, both the Florida and UK PPP initiatives target the same goal – reorienting the corrections system away from a central focus on incarceration and placing a heavy emphasis on rehabilitation.
With Virginia's fiscal challenges set to continue indefinitely, the opportunity to save hundreds of millions while improving offender outcomes should compel policymakers to seriously consider advancing similar PPP innovations. PPPs already have a long and successful track record at helping correctional agencies control costs, deliver high-quality inmate rehabilitation services and safely operate correctional institutions. Extending the PPP model to create a continuum of care would better orient the system toward high performance and maximize the likelihood of offenders' successful return to society.
Leonard Gilroy is director of government reform at Reason Foundation and senior fellow at the Virginia-based Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy. For more details on the continuum of care PPP concept, see "Corrections 2.0: A Proposal to Create a Continuum of Care in Corrections through Public-Private Partnerships," a January 2011 report by Reason Foundation and Florida TaxWatch.