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Mesa could be the first city in Arizona to privatize its jail operations. Jessica Boehm/azcentral.com Wochit

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The City of Mesa is looking for a less expensive jail to house its misdemeanor offenders. And Sheriff Paul Penzone isn’t happy about it.

Mesa currently sends its inmates to Maricopa County facilities, but that comes with an increasingly high price tag. Over the past 10 years, the county has increased its daily housing prices by nearly 40 percent and its booking cost by more than 60 percent.

To ensure public safety while being good stewards of taxpayer money, Mesa is considering CoreCivic, a private contractor, to house the inmates in Pinal County. City leaders estimate the change could save as much as $2 million a year.

Meeting the needs of the criminal justice system while saving taxpayer money sounds like a win-win. But nothing is so simple when politics are involved.

Why is 'profit' a problem?

Penzone was quick to condemn Mesa’s move, claiming it could increase county expenses and have a negative impact on his organization. To persuade Mesa and other cities not to search for better options, he said he would try to reduce costs and increase efficiency. He claims to have closed Tent City for just this reason.

The per-prisoner rate increases are due to reduced occupancy in the jails, according to his office. Since facilities need to remain open, they have the same hard costs regardless of how many inmates they hold. However, it’s hard not to wonder if the massive lawsuits from the Arpaio years could have something to do with it.

Penzone also is concerned about the free market interfering with government. “Any time we privatize housing inmates, there’s a profit element,” he said, suggesting that a for-profit model empowers lobbyists to try to increase the length of sentences and reduce diversionary programs.

Here’s where the sheriff tips his hand.

Let’s be honest: critics’ main problem with for-profit prisons is their distaste for the term “profit.” They consider private companies’ pursuit of revenue to be vulgar, while government’s pursuit of revenue is noble. And if Penzone can maintain his monopoly status on prison space, he won’t need to reduce costs or increase efficiency as he now promises.

If that's bad, what about green bologna?

California Attorney General Kamala Harris was blunter: “It is morally wrong for corporations to profit off the mass incarceration of millions of people in this country.” She doesn’t mention that vendors selling steel bars, uniforms, and fencing already profit from mass incarceration, along with countless other companies. Singling out private prisons for contempt shows a lack of understanding or honesty.

Another common complaint is that private firms will reduce staffing and cut corners to maximize profits. However, no private prison has handed inmates pink underwear and green bologna to save a buck, as former Sheriff Joe Arpaio did.

PRO: Why private prisons make sense for Arizona

CON: Private prisons are costly and unconstitutional

Any misdemeanor offender in the past two decades of Arpaio's administration could have spent an August in an old Army tent under the watchful eye of a department rife with abuse. I suspect any inmate would have preferred a CoreCivic facility instead.

Private prisons aren’t a cure-all, but they provide taxpayers with a chance at lower costs and greater flexibility. To strike them from consideration is foolish.

Penzone decries CoreCivic as focusing only on the bottom line. But at the same time, he claims privatization will reduce the payments coming to his office while increasing his expenses.

It appears that government is just as concerned with the bottom line.

Jon Gabriel, a Mesa resident, is editor-in-chief of Ricochet.com and a contributor to The Republic and azcentral.com. Follow him on Twitter at @exjon.

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