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Privatizing prison may not save money

Privatizing Utah's prison system would have no clear cost advantages, according to an independent study that was presented to lawmakers on Wednesday.

The study by the University of Utah's School of Social Work and Criminal Justice Center compared existing studies conducted in other states that have both private and public prisons and found "no clear empirical advantage or disadvantage to privatize."

Study co-author Brad Lundahl told members of the Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Interim Committee that the majority of private prison facilities are medium- to minimum-security facilities. Arguments for privatization, he said, would be reducing costs while maintaining quality of service. Arguments against the issue would be ethical concerns and risks that security would be compromised.

The comparison of eight out-of-state studies, Lundahl said, showed a 50 percent chance of a cost savings by going private, with a 25 percent chance that the state would actually lose money and a 25 percent chance that privatization would make no difference. Statistically, the results mean there would be almost no cost benefit.

The study found little difference between private and public prisons regarding factors such as prison order, health care, prison safety and skills training.

Tom Patterson, executive director of the Utah Department of Corrections, said the study tells him that he "shouldn't be running toward privatization," but shouldn't rule it out as an option.

The study was requested by Rep. Greg Hughes, R-Draper, whose prison privatization bill was killed during the 2007 legislative session.