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The Incarceration Period For Prisoners Is Longer In A State With Private Prison

In recent times, more states in the U.S. are dependent on private prisons for the incarceration of their inmates. The rapid expansion of this industry began during the late 1980s and early 1990s that shows a large margin of annual profits from 1984 ($14 million) to 1994 ($120 million).

This topic was further discussed by Gregmar Galinato and Ryne Rohla, researchers and economists from Washington State University, in their recently published paper in the journal Labour Economics, entitled “Do privately owned prisons increase incarceration rates?”

In their study, it shows that states that utilize private facilities will have a yearly average increase of 178 prisoners per million population. Assuming all extra inmates were held in private prisons, this corresponds to allocating an additional $1.9 million to $10.6 million in state expenditure yearly.

Another variable presented by Galinato and Rohla is the impact of private prisons on the intensive effect of imprisonment through the sentencing length.

Instead, the length of sentences in private prisons are significantly affected by non-violent crimes, specifically wherein their study, they saw a 1% rise in the private prison beds per capita which increases the sentencing period of fraud, drugs, regulatory, and weapons crimes by 2 days, 7 days, 29 days, and 13 days respectively.

Nevertheless, these estimates could misrepresent the actual amount of time imprisoned individuals spend in private prisons as another research paper published in 2019 by professor Anita Mukherjee from Wisconsin School of Business found that inmates in Mississippi private prison spent a full three months longer than individuals convicted of the same crimes but sent to public prison.

On this note, Galinato stated that not all crimes are created equally and said, “ For crimes like property damage, fraud, or non-violent drug crimes – crimes where judges have more leeway in sentencing – state saw higher sentencing rates and significant increases in sentence lengths when private prisons were established”

They also pointed out that for violent crimes sentences, there are no particular new sentences as well as no changes in sentencing length due to judges not having much leniency of sentencing. “For us, that was a good marker, because that showed that this was not a random noise or some correlation,” Galinato said of the fact that only some offenses saw a difference in punishment.

From here on, both researchers proposed two possible reasoning for the interstate discrepancy. The first is corruption, where private prisons will incentivize judges or legislators to give out harsher sentencing and extend the imprisonment period.

The most notable instance of corruption is the ‘kids for cash‘ case in Pennsylvania, where a private prison corporation bribed two judges to grant juvenile offenders tougher sentences instead of probation to maximize occupancy at for-profit detention facilities.

The second reasoning for this is the capacity of the prison beds available.

Galinato explained that in states where prison capacity is an issue, judges are more reluctant to send non-violent offenders to jail, whereas private prisons minimize those problems making it easier for judges to give out tougher sentences.

Both these reasonings, however, remain only as possible theories as the researchers found no sufficient correlation to argue that either factor definitely contributed to higher rates of imprisonment at private prisons.

The Labour Economics study continues focusing to establish the extensive and intensive marginal relationship between private prisons and incarceration.

The researchers proceed to develop a theoretical model that illustrates how enforcement agencies limited by prison capacities or vulnerable to corruption-skew punishments lead to longer sentences for more incarcerated individuals.

To define the empirical results, Galinato and Rohla used distinctive instrumental variables namely the measure of privatization ideology based on an index number of economic studies relevant to the topic. This instrument strongly predicted the growth of state-level private prison capacity as well as the growth of state private education, implying that it captures the strength of the power of privatization ideology well.

Although Galinato has studied corruption in his previous research, he does not usually focus on prison study. He was heavily inspired by an episode on a television show “Elementary”, that shows corruption in a private prison where in order to satisfy the owner of the private facility who seeks to manipulate a lobby party, the prison warden went along killing an inmate.

This led him to propose the idea in 2015, but the privatization ideology took years to be developed as one of the most challenging components of the project was finding an approach to analyze causality. Galinato said that the link between private prisons and incarceration can be self-perpetuating which led to an extensive period of research.

Mary Stohr, professor of criminal justice and criminology in WSU, stated that private prison tends to stay out of the public eye, which resulted in limited research on the topic. She hopes with the recent study, the subject could be stressed more as well as adding context to the debate regarding public versus private incarceration.

Galinato and Rohla highlighted the baseline finding of their research indicates that states with high levels of imprisonment will worsen this result upon implementing prison privatization policies, especially if capacity restrictions are lifted and officials are more corrupt.

These results also suggested that privatization of prisons will increase the pro-incarceration effects of legislation such as the 1994 Crime Bill, in particular measures that magnify the impact of non-violent offenses such as the policy of three strikes. The findings of the mechanism also help to further highlight the value of anti-corruption policies for the effectiveness and fairness of judicial outcomes.

“We are not saying that private prisons are bad,” Galinato said in a release. “But states need to be careful with them. If your state has previous and regular issues with corruption, I wouldn’t be surprised to see laws being more skewed to give longer sentences, for example. If the goal is to reduce the number of incarcerated individuals, increasing the number of private prisons may not be the way to go.”

Rebecca Riddle the co-director of New York University Law School’s Human Rights and Privatization Project commended Galinato and Rohla’s work stating, “We need more research like this that looks at the societal impacts, often profound, of privatizing state functions.”

She further wrote on her Twitter, “It’s appalling that private prisons increase incarceration levels. But should we be surprised? Or is this a foreseeable outcome of creating a powerful industry that profits from every [additional] incarcerated person, takes in billions in taxpayer [dollars], and spends millions lobbying?”

“It was very hard work, and we found out why nobody has done this work before,” Galinato said. “But we hope this has an impact and gives lawmakers something to think about when considering bringing in or adding private prisons.”

For the future, Galinato shows interest in researching the relationship between private prisons and halfway houses, as well as analyzing the incentive systems of private prisons that currently contain significant ethical hazards.