Prison reform not exciting topic

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 11, 2006

Prison reform is not the kind of political issue that keeps people awake at night with excitement. In fact, many elected officials are so afraid of tackling the issue that it has been deemed off-limits to many in state government. However, like it or not, prison reform is not an issue the legislature can ignore just because it is an election year. Year after year our dysfunctional corrections system has continued to deteriorate to the point that if something is not done now we will face a problem that could easily financially bankrupt Alabama for years to come.

I recently toured a state prison and was shocked to see the danger faced on a day-to-day basis by young correctional officers. These men and women are charged with overseeing a prison population that outnumbers the guards 100 to 1 in some instances. This overcrowding problem puts the lives of these guards in serious danger every day. To sit back and wait for a prison riot where lives are lost without trying to address the overcrowding problem ahead of time is inexcusable on the legislature&8217;s part. Currently Alabama&8217;s prison population is close to 28,000 which is double the amount of inmates that our prison system was built to handle. As the number of prison inmates has gone up drastically, the guards who oversee the day-to-day operations of the prisons continue to be under-funded and understaffed.

These two factors could make a deadly combination in for the guards on the front line.

In addition to the state prison overcrowding, at least 816 convicted state prisoners are currently being housed in county jails long past the deadline that counties are required to house such inmates. Multiple lawsuits are currently under way against the State of Alabama regarding the overcrowding issue the state has caused in county jails and there is the threat of such suits also being filed in federal court regarding our overflowing state prisons as well. The answer of how to reform the prison system is not simple. But there is one indisputable fact &8212; something must be done now. While some will argue that we need to throw more money at the correctional system as a whole in Alabama, this is just a knee-jerk reaction that would waste valuable taxpayer dollars on an already broken system. Not to mention most taxpayers rightfully object to spending an additional 20 percent of the entire state budget on a problem that will only continue if the system is not completely overhauled.

Serious reform of our prison system requires us to look at many different aspects of the problem. We must have sentencing that is first, fair to the victims of violent crimes. The only way to completely ensure fairness is to have truth in sentencing. If someone commits a violent crime then they should be required to serve the full amount of time sentenced and not be released for good behavior. We must also be willing to think creatively with such programs as Community Corrections, where a non-violent first time offender is required to pay for their own incarceration through a garnishment of their wages. These issues are not easy but cannot be ignored if our state is going to avoid the financial train wreck that is looming in our prison system