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Jail Operation Should Stay in Public Domain

February 07, 1988

In the last 10 years a partnership has developed between the public and private sectors to cope with the tax limitations of Proposition 13. Developers--or more correctly, home-buyers--pay for roads, schools and libraries. The San Diego Police Department's new headquarters was privately built and leased to the city, and there are similar proposals for city halls and courtrooms.

Government services, such as the operation of landfills and security in government buildings, are contracted out to save money. Last month, the San Diego County Board of Supervisors voted to contract with a nonprofit organization to provide attorneys for indigent defendants.

Much of this is healthy. Private enterprise can provide many services more efficiently and less expensively than government agencies. Local government must and should be as creative as possible with its relatively limited funds.

So it is not surprising that in the scramble to find solutions to San Diego County's overcrowded jails, county officials have cast their eyes on private enterprise.

Jails can be built faster by private industry, proponents argue, because local government has difficulty securing the millions of up-front dollars for construction and because private contractors can work more efficiently without the bidding rules designed to safeguard public funds. Jails could be operated more cheaply, the rest of the argument goes, by savings on salaries and benefits and purchases.

The savings and speed sound appealing. For example, the San Diego Police Department headquarters was built on time and within budget, resulting in considerable savings.

A private jail, however, requires special state legislation, and the opposition to such legislation--from public employee unions, professional associations and civil libertarians--is immense. Los Angeles County has failed three times to get such a bill passed despite promises that the jail would be built and operated according to state standards.

The objections of public employee unions, possibly the most formidable, perhaps can be dismissed as self-interest. But we find the arguments of the American Civil Liberties Union and the professional correctional associations to be troubling.

Should government delegate the responsibility for the incarceration of criminals? What happens to societal accountability when a private, for-profit company is making the day-to-day decisions on discipline? Can private security guards adequately protect public and prisoner safety without the legal right to use lethal force? How are the constitutional rights of prisoners protected?

In the necessary search for cost savings, we would not like to see basic government responsibilities abdicated. The sheriff, the person responsible for running the jails, is an elected official and answerable to the public for his job and to the Board of Supervisors for his budget. The accountability of private firms running jails would rest on the strength of the contract in an area untested in the courts.

We would encourage the Board of Supervisors to push ahead with plans to have private firms build jails and provide some ancillary jail services, and if reforms are needed in staffing procedures to make jails less expensive to operate then that should be tackled.

But we urge the county not to relinquish its responsibility to enforce society's laws by turning over jail operation to private firms.

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