Pubdate: Sun, 07 Oct 2007
Source: Tuscaloosa News, The (AL)
Copyright: 2007 The Tuscaloosa News
Author: Ronald Fraser
Note: Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the 
DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.


Alabama's prison system is like an out-of-control carousel. In 2005,
for example, 9,700 new inmates got onboard just as 10,400 parolees
stepped off and headed for home -- up from 3,400 in 1980. Alabama
towns and cities are struggling to cope with the special services
needed by this ever-growing number of new parolees returning home each

America's lock-'em-up drug laws are keeping this merry-go-round
spinning faster and faster. Nationally, the portion of inmates leaving
state prisons after serving time for non-violent drug offenses has
shot up from 11 percent in 1985 to 37 percent in 2005. Here is how
this trend plays out in Alabama.

Alabama prisons held only 4,500 men and women in 1980. By 2006 that
number grew to 27,000.

Today, Alabama's incarceration rate -- the number of state prisoners
per every 100,000 population -- is 587. In 1980, it was only 149.

While the enforcement of federal and state drug laws has not lowered
the availability or use of illegal drugs, those laws have done more
harm than good for drug users, taxpayers and local

Drug users: Instead of dealing with drug abuse as a health issue in
education and treatment centers, drug laws have sent thousands of
otherwise law-abiding citizens to prison. But prison time can backfire.

Life behind bars is an ideal environment for non-violent inmates to
become socially alienated and to learn new criminal skills from other
inmates. Upon release, many drug users are likely to pose a greater
risk to society than when they entered prison.

Taxpayers: Alabama's prison merry-go-round would stop turning if not for the
generous contribution of more than $225 million each year from state

And nationally, it costs much more to enforce drugs laws that don't do
what the lawmakers say they were intended to do. The National
Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws in Washington estimates
that U.S. taxpayers are spending more than $1 billion a year just to
lock up 33,600 state and 10,700 federal marijuana offenders. Most of
these people are peaceful, productive citizens. They do not belong
behind bars.

Parolees: Once their prison phase ends, parolees face an uphill struggle as
they try to put their lives back together. Troubles finding jobs and a place
to live are common problems and force many ex-convicts to seek help from
local agencies.

But instead of fixing the root cause of this problem, federal and
state officials are turning to churches and social service agencies to
salvage their failed policies.

Faith-based service grants from Uncle Sam are already being used by
communities to cope with newly released inmates. The Council of State
Governments, the National Association of Counties and the Urban
Institute are all addressing re-entry issues. And the push is on to
get United Way and Big Sister/Big Brother organizations involved.
Trouble is, these efforts address only a symptom of the problem, not
the problem itself.

What to do? About one-half of all U.S. inmates are nonviolent
offenders. Would it not make a lot more sense to solve the returning
prisoner crisis by drastically cutting the number of nonviolent people
cycled through Alabama's prisons and sent back to their hometowns every year?

Policy makers in Montgomery need to stop sending non-iolent offenders
to prison and increase the use of non-prison punishments, including
treatment for drug abusers and support services for other nonviolent

This would drastically slow down Alabama's prison merry-go-round, save
taxpayers a lot of money, and shrink by up to one-half the number of
ex-inmates headed back to local communities each year.
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake