Pubdate: Sun, 06 Mar 2005
Source: Huntsville Times (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Huntsville Times
Author: David Prather, for the editorial board


Alabama's Prison Crisis Requires More Money To Fix It

No problem is so complex, H.L. Mencken once said, that someone can't 
propose a solution that is simple, neat and wrong.

The Alabama Legislature has proposed to make this state safer by putting 
people in prison for what, in terms of seriously bad behavior, is a drop in 
the bucket. This would include nonviolent drug offenders and people who 
commit what in other states would be misdemeanor property crimes.

The result: more than 24,000 inmates in a system that probably could 
reasonably handle about half that many with current facilities and 
personnel. More importantly, the Alabama Sentencing Commission estimates it 
would take almost $1 billion to fix the problem in terms of more cells.

Yet this state spends about half of the Southern states' average on 
prisoners - about $9,500 per inmate per year.

And Gov. Bob Riley paroled some 4,000 inmates early two years ago. Now, 
we're basically back in the same shape.

You think Social Security faces a crisis? This is a crisis.

Per Mencken's commentary, there aren't easy ways to fix the problem.

It's going to take a multifaceted approach, as a highly informative report 
on the prison problem by The Mobile Register on Feb. 28, pointed out.

Alabama obviously must build more prisons. Current amount available for new 
construction: zero dollars.

But "there's not enough gold in Fort Knox to build the prisons we'd have to 
have," says a member of the sentencing commission, if we let that be the 
only answer.

Alabama also must reform sentences, expand community-based corrections 
programs and bolster parole supervision programs to handle people convicted 
of crimes.

So far, nothing has been done to increase community or parole programs 
significantly. There's no money to do so.

Legislators have tweaked some sentencing laws, but they've mostly ignored 
the commission's proposals, particularly when it comes to drug sentences. 
What legislator has the political moxie to be seen as "soft on crime?"

In the meantime, the state is trying to run a prison system so poor it 
can't supply napkins to inmates. This may warm the hearts of those who 
think prison is only for punishment, not correcting behavior, but 
eventually some federal judge - even of the "nonactivist" variety - is 
going to demand the state follow the U.S. Constitution on how it treats 

Alabama has two choices. It can pay roughly $1 billion to put all its 
criminals in cells. Or it can pay less and try to deal effectively, but 
less expensively, with prisoners who don't pose danger to the public. We 
can put more under house arrest or parole or in behavior-changing programs.

What Alabama can't do is continue to act as if throwing people in 
inadequate prisons somehow works. That's a simple, neat answer. But, oh my, 
is it wrong.

By David Prather, for the editorial board
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