The Government Shouldn’t Depend on Revenue From Putting People in Jail

A video visitation station sits empty in a general population jail pod on Wednesday, July 22, 2015, at the Grand Forks County Jail in Grand Forks. Logan Werlinger/Grand Forks Herald

My jaw hit the floor at least twice over the course of two paragraphs while reading this piece from Grand Forks Herald reporter Adam Kurtz.

First, there’s this:

The Grand Forks County Commission heard from David Bostwick of HDR Architecture, a firm in Chicago hired to conduct a needs analysis of the Grand Forks County Correctional Facility. Bostwick’s group recommended expanding the jail by adding 130 beds, as the jail is over its functional capacity of 160 beds — though not yet at maximum capacity.

I can understand hiring a consultant to help determine needs when it comes to government services. That sort of forecasting can be complicated, and bringing in the experts can help.

Why in the world, though, would you hire a firm that makes money by building things to determine whether or not you need to build a thing? Even assuming HDR Architecture is, by dint of having done the analysis, prohibited from working on any resulting project, can we not presume a firm in the building industry to recommend building?

But that complaint is merely a grumble compared to what came in the next paragraph:

The county is using the jail to house inmates from outside its jurisdiction, creating a revenue stream to help offset the cost of its operation. According to Bostwick’s study, in 2028, the jail will have no space to “rent” to others, which includes the U.S. Marshal’s office, drying up the revenue stream and placing the full cost of the jail on the county. The commission has yet to take action on the issue. The consultant’s proposal was estimated to cost from $20 million to $25 million.

The county is considering enlarging their facility because, a decade hence, they’re going to run out of space. Not for the county’s incarceration needs but the needs of the side hustle they have to make money from federal prisoners? And prisoners from other jurisdictions in the region?

Anyone else seeing a problem here? What’s next, a push to arrest more people so we can keep jail revenue where the government needs to be?

Do we really want any level of our government – local, state, or federal – expanding itself based on assumed revenues from putting people in jail?

The cost of jails is a necessary evil. One borne by the public because a safe, peaceful society means law and laws necessitate a place to put people who break them.

But that’s all jails should be. A cost. Not a source of revenue.

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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