Marion County faces severe budget cuts this year, including $6.5 million for the Sheriff's Department. As a result, Sheriff Frank Anderson proposes returning 345 inmates currently housed at a private jail back to the county. Frankly, this proposal is flawed and ultimately will cost the taxpayers of Marion County more money, not less.
In April, U.S. District Judge Sarah Evans Barker placed a population cap on the Marion County Jail I to improve conditions there. Shifting 345 inmates would put the county in violation of a court order, leaving it open to further litigation and potential fines of $40 per inmate per day from the court.
In addition, it is shortsighted to assume that adding 345 more inmates to the jail will not cost the county additional money. The average cost per inmate per day at the county-run facility is more than $44. This far surpasses the rate that Corrections Corp. of America, the private operator of Marion County Jail II, charges the county for housing inmates. With a per-day rate of $39.95 per inmate, it charges less than the potential fine the county faces.
Not only would the county pay more money to house inmates at its facility, it would face potential fines of $40 per inmate per day.
Rather than reduce the number of inmates at the private facility, the county should explore ways to take further advantage of the private jail and the savings associated with privatization. More competition, not less, will result in savings for the county.
One option would be to increase the number of inmates sent to the private jail. Under the current contract, the county saves at least $4 each day per inmate at the county facility. Sending just 350 additional inmates to the private jail would save more than $500,000 per year.
However, the biggest savings opportunity, as identified by County Auditor Marty Womacks, remains the full privatization of the county-run jail. Indeed, assuming $3 savings per inmate a day (a conservative estimate that is 25 percent less than current savings at the private jail), the county would save more than $1.2 million on the cost of housing nearly 1,100 inmates. Given tight budget times and facing significant cuts, privatization seems to make sense.
Marion County has a long and positive experience with jail privatization. Indeed, it was former Mayor Stephen Goldsmith who brought competition to public services in Indianapolis and Marion County. The answer to the county's budget problems lies in more competition, not less. Rather than shying away from privatization and more competition, all county agencies, not just the sheriff, need to embrace it.
Privatizing the Marion County Jail is sound policy that will unlock savings for taxpayers, avoid violating a court-ordered population cap, provide for the proper treatment of inmates and maintain security for Marion County.
Geoffrey Segal is director of privatization and government reform at Reason Foundation