From Gov. Gary Johnson:
February 10, 2016 – Santa Fe, NM– I am often asked about private prisons – and whether they create political and financial pressure to unnecessarily incarcerate drug offenders and others. I understand the concern and the potential for such pressure, but when I was Governor, it simply didn’t happen.
Much to the contrary, building two private prisons in New Mexico solved some very serious problems – and saved the taxpayers a lot of money.
When I took office as Governor, the federal Department of Justice had, years earlier, taken control of the New Mexico prison system under a consent decree resulting from the Courts declaring that that state’s system was horribly inadequate and being operated incompetently. 700 prisoners were actually being housed out-of-state because New Mexico had nowhere acceptable to put them.
It was a serious and urgent problem, and the legislature was unwilling to address it. I explored the available options, and it quickly became obvious that the solution was private prisons that could be operated at significantly lower cost, meet the standards necessary to get the State out from under Federal oversight, and resolve what was a tremendously costly and, frankly, embarrassing situation. At the time, the “per-prisoner” cost in the state prisons was $76 per day. The cost to house prisoners in the private facilities was $56 per day. Better service, lower cost.
Never in that process did I experience any pressure to “fill beds” in the private prisons we built. And if I had, it wouldn’t have worked. It might happen elsewhere, but it absolutely did not happen in New Mexico when I was Governor. Anyone who has actually overseen a prison system and dealt with the politics thereof knows that the real pressure to fill cells comes from the public employees’ unions intent on keeping their jobs. They consistently lobby against sentencing reform and go to war to prevent common sense privatization of inefficient, incompetently managed government services.
Some who are concerned about private prisons have also suggested that, as Governor, I should have simply pulled out a pardon pen and released enough prisoners to solve the State’s prison crisis. Actually governing is very different than commenting. Yes, as in many states, the Governor of New Mexico has the authority to grant clemency and pardon. But also as in most states, there is an established process for doing so – and it is a lengthy and very structured system. The notion of simply turning hundreds of prisoners loose in order to immediately vacate cells was not a real-world option – and I operate in the real world.
I have made it clear that the U.S. incarceration rate – the highest in the developed world – is a tragic consequence of over-criminalization and the failed War on Drugs. In 1999, I became the highest-ranking elected official in the country to call for the legalization of marijuana and harm-reduction strategies for other drugs. A major consideration in that position was the financial and human cost of arresting, prosecuting and punishing nonviolent drug offenders.
Calling for the legalization of marijuana and harm reduction approaches toward harder drugs – as an elected official more than 15 years ago – is clearly NOT the action of a Governor concerned about filling prisons.