* Plan would privatize 26 south Florida prisons
* It would create largest private prison system in U.S.
* Critics say savings are exaggerated, plan invites abuse
By Michael Peltier
TALLAHASSEE, Fla., Feb 7 (Reuters) - A proposal to privatize at least 26 prisons in south Florida is facing stiff opposition in the Florida Senate and may not have the votes to pass, the chamber's president and chief backer said on Tuesday.
With the chamber split evenly on the issue, Senate President Mike Haridopolos, a Republican, said he will postpone until at least next week a vote on whether the state will outsource a third of its prisons, work camps and other corrections facilities to a private vendor or vendors.
The plan would create the largest private prison system in the United States. Florida currently operates the third-largest prison system in the United States, a $2.2 billion-a-year system overseeing nearly 101,000 inmates and another 112,800 offenders on community supervision.
Critics question the concept of privatizing public safety, saying that privately run prisons have a lower ratio of prison guards to inmates. They say private prisons have no incentives to rehabilitate inmates and are focused instead on profits.
Unable to yet muster the votes needed for passage, Haridopolos warned lawmakers that failure to pass a prison privatization measure would result in budget cuts of at least $15 million in other parts of the state's $69.2 billion budget.
"This is a water balloon process," Haridopolos said. "If you choose not to cut in one area, it's going to come out of another area, because we're not going to raise taxes to do so."
The state Department of Corrections operates 62 major prison facilities, including seven privately operated facilities; 46 work or forestry camps; 33 work-release centers; a medical treatment center; and five road-work prisons. There are currently 10,128 inmates in privately run facilities.
Florida lawmakers last year inserted a prison privatization provision in the budget request, a move that was challenged by unions and later thrown out by the courts.
Backers say the privatization effort would save taxpayers much more than the $15 million required under the bill.
Critics say the cost savings are exaggerated and the plan could cost taxpayers millions of dollars in pension benefits paid to senior corrections employees who choose not to work in a private prison.
"The evidence is not there," said veteran Florida state Senator Mike Fasano, a Republican who was stripped of the chairmanship of the powerful Senate appropriations committee last week after he spoke out against the privatization bill. "There needs to be an in-depth study to tell us if it's going to save money," he added.
Critics remained unswayed by the privatization proposal.
"The overwhelming body of evidence on private prisons, including their history in Florida, shows that locking people away for profit is an invitation to abuse," said Julie Ebenstein, policy and advocacy counsel with the American Civil Liberties Union of Florida.
"The choice is a pretty easy one - we outsource our prisons and pay the price in safety costs and civil rights, or we can make real reforms in sentencing and rehabilitation that will save money and keep Florida safe by preventing future crime," Ebenstein said.