Private prisons as an alternative to government-operated prisons have been at the forefront of public policy debate in corrections over the past two decades. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (Harrison and Beck, 2003), at yearend 2002, privately operated facilities housed 73,497 (5.8%) state prison inmates in 31 states. By comparison, in 1999, private prisons housed 67,380 (5.5%) state prison inmates in 31 states and the District of Columbia. While the total state inmate population grew 4.1% since 1999, the population of state inmates housed privately grew 9.1% and accounted for 12.7% of state prison population growth over the last three years. Nationwide, private prisons hold enough inmates to constitute the third largest state-level prison system, behind California and Texas.
Using data from Florida, the current study addresses the central question of whether inmates released from private prison recidivate less than those released from public prisons. A recent monograph published by the Bureau of Justice Assistance, summarized arguments in favor of private prisons in three categories: obtaining faster and cheaper bed capacity, lowering operational costs, and improving quality of service (Austin and Conventry, 2001).1 Proponents of private prisons have argued that they may achieve more rehabilitation, as evidenced by lowering recidivism rates for their inmates. Austin and Coventry report that this argument includes an assertion that private prisons have incentives to improve rehabilitation to maintain funding support from legislatures (2001, p. 32). They also report that some evidence appears to support a recidivism-reduction claim (2001, p. 13). However, Austin and Coventry state that private prison providers have had little need to argue this claim and the lack of solid evidence for recidivism reduction has clearly not prevented the initial growth of private prisons.
Policymakers’ interest in this argument for privatization is indicated, for example, by Florida statutes that authorize the state’s Correctional Privatization Commission to contract for private prison services and require the Commission to submit a report to the presiding officers of the Legislature annually. The law states that, “…Each report must also include a comparison of recidivism rates for inmates of private correctional facilities to the recidivism rates for inmates of comparable facilities managed by the department.”2
As a result of this annual statutory requirement, the Florida Correctional Privatization Commission approached the Florida Department of Corrections (FDOC) and the Florida State University School of Criminology and Criminal Justice to collaborate in this research.3 This effort harnessed the unique expertise, resources, and perspectives of these three organizations to conduct the study. This collaboration specifically enhanced the study’s data quality standards, methodological rigor, and objectivity in both analysis and interpretation.
This study improves on previous work in three primary ways. First, significant advancements are made over how previous research has quantified exposure to private prisons and identified control groups of public inmates. Second, the number of cases studied is substantially larger. Third, this study provides more methodological rigor through the breadth of control variables used and the methods of establishing comparability between the public and private release cohorts on factors known to influence recidivism rates.Notes: