Today’s Courier Herald Column:
Richard Dawson passed away earlier this month at the age of 79. Perhaps best known as the host of the game show Family Feud, he was also a recurring character in the sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. One of his most intriguing roles was as the host of a futuristic game show host in the Arnold Schwarzenegger movie The Running Man.
The movie featured Schwarzenegger’s character playing a televised game where he competed in various death matches against others in an attempt to gain his freedom after an arrest. The concept was that by providing entertainment for the public, he was paying his debt to society and had the ability to gain his freedom.
The game, however, was rigged. His was both framed for his crime and the rules were set so that no one ever actually gained his freedom. It was merely a ruse to cut the cost to the state of maintaining prisons and to provide a money making venture for those on the inside.
Georgia has long had prisons that are operated by private companies. These don’t parallel the concept of this movie as there is still a separation between the arrest, trial, and conviction or acquittal of a suspect and the profit motive of those who try to run an efficient correctional institution.
In short, it still costs the state to incarcerate a prisoner. There is no monetary incentive for the state to imprison someone. To the contrary, Georgia passed sentencing reform this year in order to reduce the number of people sent to prison largely for budgetary reasons.
There are, however, creeping levels of state power where private companies are allowed to be the police, judge, and jury over Georgia’s citizens. The expanding nature of these roles, and the lack of sufficient checks and balances on the private companies, deserves additional scrutiny.
Red light cameras are perhaps the best known example of extending police power to private companies. A bit over a decade ago, municipalities rushed to install these devices under the guise of safety. Many, however, also reduced the amount of time allowed for yellow lights. This gave less time for a car to react to the light change, and consequently, increased the revenue for both the cities using them and the private company operating them.
When state laws added restrictions and minimum yellow light times for the cameras, many became a net loss to the cities that were using them. Despite the claims of how much they had improved safety when they were profitable, many municipalities dumped them as soon as they went from being a cash cow to a liability.
The city of Atlanta has moved one step beyond red light cameras. They now outsource their entire parking enforcement operation to a private company operating under the name Park Atlanta. The city entered into a long term contract in exchange for Park Atlanta to invest in the replacement of the city’s old parking meters with new smart meters. The number of meters was also greatly expanded, including new streets where parking was formerly free.
The initial reaction from citizens and local businesses was harsh. Park Atlanta’s aggressive enforcement caught many off guard. When the city attempted to adjust to citizens’ concerns, they were reminded of the eight-figure penalty if the city ends the contract early. Instead, the city is negotiating higher fines for violators.
The problem, however, is that Park Atlanta is acting as police, judge, and jury. Numerous complaints have been reported where motorists claim that they were issued tickets when there was still time left on their meter. Former Park Atlanta employees have complained about aggressive ticket quotas that they must write, implying that many are writing tickets to innocent motorists in order to keep their jobs.
Atlanta City Councilwoman Felicia Moore is not impressed with Park Atlanta, and objected to the increased fines during recent council discussion. “I am not interested in feeding the monster, especially without any controls” she said.
Privatization in and of itself is neither good nor bad. Privatization without proper controls on the private contractor is a recipe for trouble. Privatization of police power without proper controls incentivizes private entities to make money by infringing on the freedom of the innocent.
It’s not on the scale of Running Man, but Atlanta’s parking contract is incompatible with the concept of a free society. The city should run away from Park Atlanta.