Prisons Not an 'Economic Development' Program

This week, Rep. Steve Lindberg, D-Marquette, offered the following amendment (defeated on an unrecorded “voice vote”) to the Department of Corrections budget for the fiscal year that begins on Oct. 1:

When the department determines that the closure of a correctional facility is warranted … (it must) fully consider the potential economic impact (on the community, and) … make it a high priority to close a facility for which the local economic impact is minimized.

That’s a nice sentiment if you happen to live in such a community, but does it really contribute to the general welfare of Michigan residents for prisons to be regarded as a government “jobs” or “economic development” program?

Clearly the answer is “no.”

The perverse incentives such an explicit policy would generate are not hard to imagine. However, that doesn’t stop the prison guards union from using its political muscle to prevent not just prison closures, but even sentencing reform proposals, and of course efforts to save money by seeking competitive bids on prison operations.

One lesson here is that by allowing government employee unions to engage in collective bargaining, the Legislature has created a permanent taxpayer-funded lobby for more and more expensive prisons.

On that last point — keeping prisons more expensive — several amendments were also offered recently to prohibit cost-saving privatization, and although these too were defeated on unrecorded “voice votes,” Democrats weren’t the only legislators opposing outsourcing.

According to MIRS News, Rep. Ed McBroom, R-Vulcan, was one of several GOP members supporting a Democratic amendment to halt the closure of a state reformatory for juvenile delinquents, and Rep. Rick Outman, R-Six Lakes, cited this as the reason he voted against the “omnibus” budget of which prison spending was just one part. The expectation is that these “juvies” would instead be housed in a privatized prison that former Gov. Jennifer Granholm promised the prison guards union she would shut down — a promise she kept in 2004.

Meanwhile, at least eight Republican House members are preventing passage of another bill specifically authorizing housing some prisoners in privatized prisons. The measure could save Michigan taxpayers more than $100 million as the unions and management of the nonprivatized prisons respond by cutting their own costs to remain competitive.