Small government vs. smart government


July 5, 2013 

Our prison systems provide a critical public service that we sometimes take for granted.

At their best, they rehabilitate and build the skills of inmates so that when they come back into our communities, they are prepared to be productive citizens. It is crucial to our public safety that prison systems do this effectively, because over 90 percent of the incarcerated population will eventually be released.

The recent debacle with Corrections Corporation of America demonstrates what happens when profit motives taint the mission of our state prisons.

The Idaho Correction Board is to be commended for finally choosing to end the contract for the services provided by Corrections Corporation of America. But to simply turn that prison over to a different private prison contractor would be a mistake. Only an entity dedicated to the rehabilitation of prisoners, to increasing public safety, and to reducing the future costs of prisons can be entrusted with such an important task. We should seize this opportunity to turn over the management of this prison to Idaho State Director of Correction Brent Reineke.

It seems that having "small" government has become an end unto itself for some of our elected officials. But what we should strive for isn't "small" government; we should strive for "smart" government. When we debate about the size of government, we're having the wrong discussion. What we really need are effective public services, and we need smart government to get us there. Smart government doesn't care whether we have 100 publicly employed prison guards or 100 privately employed prison guards. Smart government finds the most cost-effective means to a well-run system that protects our public safety.

So, let's start focusing on making Idaho's government smart.

It's not smart to reward prison operators with more business and higher profits if they produce more repeat offenders. It is smart to have a state-run system that will use innovative training and rehabilitation solutions to begin to shrink our prison population.

It's not smart to incarcerate our offenders in facilities with abysmal conditions that breed violence. It is smart to teach prisoners to live without violence so they won't be a threat to our communities when they come home.

It's not smart to pay nearly $30 million to an out-of-state corporation whose profits don't stay in Idaho. It is smart to spend that $30 million hiring Idahoans.

It's not smart to limit accountability of prison services so Idaho taxpayers don't know what's going on behind those walls. It is smart to have the state run the facility so management is accountable to the taxpayers through the Freedom of Information Act.

It's not smart to have lobbyists from large private prison corporations mucking about in state government and peddling influence with campaign donations. It is smart to close the door of the Idaho Statehouse to private prison contractors once and for all.

So can we change the conversation? Let's remind our elected officials that Idahoans are good old-fashioned pragmatists and we want smart government in Idaho.

Boise resident Donna Yule is executive director of the Idaho Public Employees Association.

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