The Herald, Sharon, Pa.

Opinion

June 29, 2014

Operating county jail about more than money

OUR VIEW — MERCER COUNTY Commissioners say they’re considering turning the county jail over to a private contractor as a way to save taxpayer dollars. We’re not sure if they’re serious or just playing games with the jail guards union, but we are sure that privatizing the jail is a bad idea.

The argument in favor of handing over the keys to the county jail is simple: A private company – in this case the cynically named Community Education Centers -- can manage and operate the jail for a lot less than the $7.5 million a year that it costs the county to feed, house and guard between 250 and 300 inmates every day.

How can they do it? By applying the rules of the free market: paying employees as little as possible and spending as little as possible on inmates. The difference between that and what they bill the county is their profit and it’s the only real reason any business in this country operates.

To a lot of hard-pressed, law-abiding taxpayers, lower pay for someone else and austerity for prisoners doesn’t sound like such a bad deal. We’d like to disabuse people of that notion.

We’re as opposed as anyone to wasteful government spending and think that if a private business can do the job, then government should get out of the way.

But that’s not the case here. Administering justice is exclusively a governmental responsibility. We don’t have private police forces or for-profit courts.

Why would we imagine that the end product of successful policing and prosecution should be handed over to a company that puts its own interests before the public’s? Jail isn’t a business patronized by willing customers who, if they don’t like the way they’re being serviced, can just take their business elsewhere.

Turning the jail over to a private company will cost every guard and current county prison employee their job. Those are, pay- and benefit-wise, good jobs and the people who do them are mostly local, with families and mortgages and all the other responsibilities and obligations that invest people in their communities.

We’re told they’ll be able to apply for their jobs under the new management, but who among us would be willing to take a 50 percent or more pay cut with no change in hours or job duties?

From what we understand, a jail guard working for Community Education Centers would make just a little more than a cashier at a local discount grocery store. We think there’s a bit of a difference between scanning off-brand pudding cups and guarding hundreds of inmates, some of whom are still in the “innocent until proven guilty” stage.

The potential for abuse, neglect or mistreatment of those folks along with those who have been adjudicated by an underpaid or less-skilled workforce (or the criminal element they’re supposed to be guarding) is high to the point of “when,” not “if,” it will happen.

And when it does, whom do we hold responsible? A private contractor or the deep-pocketed, well-insured government that hired someone else to watch the inmates?

There’s a reason that all three commissioners sit on the county’s Prison Board. It’s the same reason that board is made up entirely of elected officials: accountability. Voters put these people in positions of power over others – complete power in the case of inmates whose freedom has been revoked – and they expect them to take the job seriously, not farm it out to Jails R Us.

No one wants to spend money they don’t have to, but there are some bills that, like the debt to society inmates are paying, can’t be avoided.

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