Guest Opinion: Idaho's CCA prison debacle shows need for serious reform

GUEST OPINION: A.J. Balukoff

April 26, 2014 

When elected leaders hire a private corporation to manage an essential government function, they do not make government smaller. Privatizing a public service merely reduces control, oversight and accountability. Idaho's contract with Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) to manage the Idaho state prison is a glaring example of privatization gone badly wrong.

That travesty was a colossal waste of taxpayer dollars that has led to an FBI investigation. Inmates called the prison "Gladiator School." Videos show inmates viciously beating each other. The FBI stepped in only after the administration first misled the public by claiming there had been an investigation that never occurred, and then Gov. Otter refused to order one. It fell to others to demand a probe before Gov. Otter acceded.

By understaffing the prison in violation of a $29 million contract with the state, and then falsifying reports to cover it up, CCA billed Idaho for 26,000 bogus hours, according to an independent audit - bilking taxpayers for untold sums of money. Conveniently for CCA, state officials agreed to accept $1 million from CCA to settle the overstaffing question - before the results of an investigation are known.

An out-of-state corporation was apparently stealing from Idaho taxpayers, and Gov. Butch Otter was asleep at the wheel. If I had committed such an enormous blunder as a CPA, my professional reputation would have been badly damaged. But so far, no one in state government has been held accountable for this scandal.

CCA's example shows that prisons are best managed by qualified state employees, with oversight by state boards and elected representatives.

In January 2014, the Council of State Governments Justice Center reported that Idaho's crime rate is among the lowest in the nation - yet Idaho's incarceration rate is the eighth highest, and nonviolent offenders here do twice as much time as nonviolent offenders in other states. The report noted that since 2008, Idaho's prison population has increased 10 percent, and warned that without changes, that number could balloon another 16 percent in five years - at a cost of $288 million. To put that in perspective, $288 million could pay for more than 5,000 teachers.

The report recommended that Idaho invest $33 million in treatment, supervision and training, slowing the growth of the prison population in order to avoid building a new prison (estimated at $213 million) and incurring its annual operating costs (estimated at $75 million).

We should also invest in prevention. A November 2004 report titled "Hard Choices," by Boise State University professors Robert L. Marsh and Steven B. Patrick, noted that 31 percent of Idaho inmates have mental-health problems; 67 percent have substance-abuse problems; and 54 percent lack a high school diploma. Idaho needs programs to provide early intervention for teenagers and adults who exhibit risk factors - keeping people out of prison, saving millions of dollars and making communities safer.

A prison system that houses too many offenders for too long is a moral and fiscal failure.

We may not know for many months whether crimes were committed in the CCA debacle or who was responsible. The FBI should take the time necessary to conduct a thorough and fair investigation. But at best, this administration overlooked CCA's defrauding of taxpayers. When mistakes that serious are committed, the buck has to stop in the governor's office.

Operating a prison is a public service that we don't like to think about. But like any function of government, prisons must operate efficiently and effectively. We must take back control of our prisons and make state government accountable by restoring balance to government, so that taxpayers know every dollar is well spent.

Balukoff, of Boise, is a Democratic candidate for governor of Idaho.

Today is our last installment of our "Where The Candidates Stand" series for the May 20 gubernatorial primary. Though A.J. Balukoff's Democratic challenger, Terry Kerr, of Idaho Falls, did contact us this week, he did not answer the questions we posed for this series. He did write, "I believe that A.J. Balukoff is on the same page as I am. I would like to debate the Republicans ... " He then proceeded to address questions he has received from various groups about issues, but none of his submissions pertained specifically to the topics we asked about: Common Core, Medicaid expansion and prisons. That final topic is what Balukoff addresses today.

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