New Castle News

May 17, 2013

Our Opinion: Privatization of county jail is worthy of examination

By Staff
New Castle News

NEW CASTLE — Generally speaking, we support government efforts to seek more efficient ways to provide essential services.

So we have no problem with the decision by the Lawrence County commissioners to solicit proposals for the private operation of the county jail.

Privatization is a relatively common practice in government these days. The idea is that a private entity — more inclined to watch the bottom line — may deliver services in a better fashion.

But not always. A possible danger with privatization is that it creates a new middleman, ultimately adding to costs, or it creates a buffer between the citizens and those who provide services.

If the county jail is privatized, the people of Lawrence County would continue to own the facility. However, its management would be handled by an outside company and staff would be private, not county employees.

This is something that occurs throughout the United States. Lawrence County would hardly be a trailblazer if it opts for private jail operations.

County administrator James Gagliano indicated that uncertainty over future health care costs prompted the interest in privatization. Such employee benefits are a growing expense throughout government, and innovative ways are needed to address them.

In deciding whether to make such a change, the commissioners must consider factors beyond immediate costs. For instance, liability is a major concern with jail operations. What sort of liability protection would the county have over inmate complaints if a private entity is in charge of operations?

Or would the county find itself caught up in costly lawsuits over matters it didn’t directly control?

We note that in recent years, the county jail has received high operational ratings from reviews by state correctional officials. That suggests current management is not a problem and not an argument for privatization.

And the ability to revert to direct county operations should be considered if privatization fails to deliver any promised savings. How difficult would it be for the county to hire a new crop of guards and other staff?

These and others are potentially complicated concerns that have to be addressed in any privatization assessment. By no means do they preclude privatization, but they can’t be ignored if the ultimate goal is to run the jail as efficiently, as safely and as cheaply as possible.

Another point worth making here is that any move toward privatization ought to be a process that receives widespread support within county government and with the public. We recall that privatization efforts in the past with Hill View Manor, once the county’s nursing home, wound up as a disaster. That’s a lesson in doing privatization right.