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The "Smart Money" May Be in Misery, Unless Texas Gets Smart First

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Where some folks see growing prison systems as a serious problem that we can fix, others see dollar signs.

The Wall Street Journal's "Smart Money" feature observed this weekend that the nation's three largest private prisons stand to rake it in with the rise in prison populations projected for the next few years (Profits for Private Jailers). The article mentions a national study that has projected more prison beds across the country. Corrections Corporation of America, GEO Group, and Cornell Corrections, the nation's three largest private prison companies, are all poised to profit if this dire trend continues. If, true to the trends of the last two decades, private prison companies are able to take up close to 8-10% of the "market," that's possibly $2 billion in income.

But the Pew study that the article mentions doesn't just report on more prison beds to predict a gold rush. It points out that if we move quickly and wisely, we can reverse this trend. They estimate that at current rates, our country is looking at over 192,000 more prison beds over the next five years and over $25 billion in increased prison spending. That money will come out of federal, state and local budgets and away from other needed services. Or, as they point out, we can start using our heads -- look at the facts to set policy and spend money on true public safety.

The Pew study has a great two-page summary of how Texas can get a grip on its growing prison spending (PDF). They specifically list opportunities for smart changes that could lower prison spending and redirect money to public safety. Texas, for example, is holding thousands of people for non-violent offenses but is not providing enough drug treatment in the community, a reasonable and effective alternative. And lengthy parole sentences mean not enough parole supervision and more likelihood that people will return to prison on a technical violation.

But, if Texas looks at the facts and makes some smart changes, it could cause a problem: the private prison companies that are hoping to build new prisons in Texas may have to look elsewhere to boost their bottom line.

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