Outsourcing, public-private partnership – this is the Trojan horse of the political entrepreneur that will fool the political class every time into believing salvation from inefficient government lies within. For those familiar with how markets are actually supposed to function, the irony is clear: only harm shall spring forth.

One of the more insidious “partnerships” is that of the outsourced private prison and probation services. The Georgia legislature has recently passed HB 837 which has expanded the authority of private probation companies while simultaneously decreasing public oversight of their operations. In Georgia, if one is convicted of a misdemeanor  (anything from shoplifting to traffic citations) and cannot pay the assessed fine in full, then one is turned over to a private probation company (basically a glorified collection agency) which then collects the fine, along with their monthly fee of course. Under the new law, if fines are unpaid then those convicted may be thrown in jail or electronically monitored all the while accruing greater fines. The original probation period may be “tolled” or extended indefinitely until the fine is paid in full. Inability to pay will land one in prison. Essentially Georgia has reestablished debtor prisons. Herein lies a perverse incentive; inability to pay translates into larger fines. The public courts and the private companies then share in this growing revenue stream. Ironically they make more money off of those with the least ability to pay.

“But criminals must make restitution, surely you’re not suggesting that just because someone is “poor” they should not be compelled to answer for their crime?” No, I’m not suggesting that at all (although I do seriously question whether traffic violations rise to the level of “crime”). To understand why outsourcing leads to distorted incentives, ask yourself, who is the customer? Is it the state, or is it the lawbreaker? In fact, it is the lawbreaker. The state intercedes and poses as the customer, which diverts the stream of responsibility. The probation company is not answerable to the real customer, so they have no incentive to serve them.

Now you may be scratching your head trying to figure out why the lawbreaker should be the customer. Allow me to explain. Assuming that an actual rights violation has occurred (e.g. petty theft), then there is a victim and a perpetrator. The conflict is between those two parties and no one else. It can then be resolved by use of an arbitration (court) proceeding to uncover fault. Assuming the thief is at fault, he has an obligation to make all parties whole (the entity that apprehended him, the court that adjudicated the facts, and of course the victim). To simplify things we’ll assume the insurance carrier of the victim has made all parties whole. Now the insurance carrier has a rightful claim against the thief. It seeks to be made whole. Stated differently, the thief has a debt obligation to that insurance carrier. If the thief cannot pay immediately, then those two parties can come to a mutual agreement as to how that debt will be discharged. They are not constrained by any “laws” – they may agree to whatever they wish. There are many options, but one option could be a voluntary arrangement with a private “prison” (if you can call it that) that would discharge the debt to the insurance carrier in exchange for a certain amount of labor. The thief would have many of these private prisons to choose from and he is under no obligation to choose this path at all – therefore such private prisons would compete for such a labor source, enticing their customers with favorable terms. Indeed, conditions would most assuredly be far more favorable than in any public or private prison system today. After all, if they don’t please their customers (the voluntary “prisoners”) then they won’t be in business for long.

Public-private partnerships will always be corrupted by perverse incentives if the company providing the service is not directly accountable to the customer.