Study Explores Privatization of Public Systems of Justice

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Since the 1980s, federal and local governments have increasingly used public money to hire private firms to house and manage people who are incarcerated. In the last few years, the number of incarcerated individuals held in privately operated institutions has risen sharply. A new study sought to determine the points at which individuals who encounter public systems of justice are charged by private entities. The study found that private firms that work with public entities in the justice system charge money for their services at numerous points, that some of the charges are mandated, and that there is little transparency into or oversight over how these public-private partnerships operate.

The study, by researchers at the University of Washington, appears in Criminology & Public Policy, a publication of the American Society of Criminology.

“Even though justice institutions primarily remain public entities, private corporations are running many key justice system programs and generating large profits from captive populations,” says Alexes Harris, professor of sociology at the University of Washington, who led the study. “We discovered that companies are profiting from the forced participation of people involved in the justice system.”

In addition to outsourcing the management of correctional facilities, many local and state authorities contract with private companies to provide a range of services and processes in U.S. courthouses, jails, and prisons. At times, costs are exchanged for services or products; at other times, private entities are allowed by governments to charge people for the forced management of their bodies and property. Some of these costs include charges to be represented by a public defender, post bail or bond, make telephone calls, and purchase items from the commissary. Also included are charges related to supervision of probation, electronic home monitoring, alcohol and drug testing, and substance abuse and mental health services.

The authors of the study provide two case studies: First, they explore how Seattle outsources services to monitor and control people involved with the courts. Then, they describe the relationship between the Washington State Department of Corrections and a national prison-tech company called JPay, which provides services to incarcerated individuals.

After reviewing various private services operating in different systems of justice, the study found that the scope of public-private partnerships is wide and there is little accountability or oversight. Individuals involved with the justice system can be charged fees during the court process, during incarceration (before and after conviction), and during supervision or after release.

Furthermore, the study found that although individuals may have a choice about whether to pay for some of the services, in many cases, they are mandated by law, court order, or local informal practices to pay. Inability to afford the prices set by private providers–some of which have a monopoly on the service offered–can make the difference between a clean and a tarnished criminal record, which has consequences for educational, housing, and employment opportunities, the authors note.

“Our study suggests that policymakers should explore more thoroughly the reasons for the ethical questions involved in the privatization of justice system practices and services,” says Harris. “Policymakers also need to develop transparent oversight to ensure that private arrangements don’t impose undue burdens on individuals involved with the justice system and their families.”

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