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Reason’s Annual Privatization Report 2014

The Foundation’s Annual Privatization Report 2014 — which has been released gradually in sections — is now completely out. The last section to be released is the Criminal Justice and Corrections section, which reprints my blog post from last November about the Israeli Supreme Court’s 2009 decision striking down private prisons on philosophical grounds. Here’s an excerpt from that post:

The Israeli opinion is interesting both for what it might portend in other countries and as an example of the sort of high-level political-theory reasoning about privatization that seems foreign to the U.S. constitutional tradition.

Prison litigation is important in the U.S., but always in terms of instrumental concerns like the constitutional rights of prisoners and the accountability of prison authorities. Private prisons are considered state actors in the U.S., so public and private prisoners have all the same constitutional rights. (Which isn’t to say they always have the same remedies: see my May 2013 Annual Privatization Report piece on the tort liability of federal private prisons.) Thus, one can always claim that prisoners are suffering cruel and unusual punishment as a result of bad prison conditions, or aren’t being afforded due process, or are being denied their First Amendment rights to freedom of speech or free exercise of religion; if conditions are worse at private prisons, then presumably private prisons will lose cases more often, but the public or private status of the prison typically doesn’t enter into the argument directly.

How different our approach is from that of the Israeli court, which explicitly held, based on the most brief and general text, that private purposes and social meaning made prison privatization invalid, regardless of the effect on inmates. Though a philosophical discussion of the legitimacy of the privatization of force is always welcome, the Israeli court’s approach relies heavily on conclusory assertions about public and private motives and purposes. The court doesn’t seriously consider the deep similarity between public and private employees, who after all are just people under a contract of some sort with the government, both agreeing to do the state’s bidding for money and neither necessarily sharing the public purposes that justify incarceration as a philosophical matter. The type of contract matters, but because different contracts have different incentives and lead to different actions, not because one kind is “the state acting” and the other kind isn’t. (I discuss the issue further here.) As a result, the court’s approach is interesting but ultimately disappointing.

For more on philosophical objections to privatization, see my UC Davis Law Review article, Privatization and the Elusive Employee-Contractor Distinction. Read the whole Annual Privatization Report 2014 here!

Sasha Volokh lives in Atlanta with his wife and three kids, and is an associate professor at Emory Law School. He has written numerous articles and commentaries on law and economics, privatization, antitrust, prisons, constitutional law, regulation, torts, and legal history.

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