The challenge of Alabama prison reform

Published 4:47 pm Tuesday, June 3, 2014

By CAM WARD / Guest Columnist

Our state is at a crossroads when it comes to our prison system. People often ask me why I am some passionate about this issue. I say it is one of the biggest threats to our state’s fiscal health. Our prison system is current at 192 percent capacity, making it the most overcrowded system in the United States. Not only are they over-crowded, underfunded, not well respected, they are also under the serious threat of being taken over by the federal government, which will result in wholesale release of violent criminals. Any state that has had a federal takeover will tell you that it costs hundreds of millions of dollars to come out from under such a federal receivership. That is money Alabama simply does not have.

And it gets worse from there. There is not the political want or will to raise taxes, and this is not some- thing we can build our way out of even if we did have the money. Our state is finally learning to live within its means in terms of the general fund budget, but that budget is getting eaten alive by two line items: Medicaid and prisons.

We can argue until we are blue in the face about the pros and cons of Medicaid expansion, but we cannot just defund our prisons. And we cannot allow the worst of the worst criminals to potentially be released back onto our streets. These guys did some not terribly nice things to get into the system after all, and as a society we have decreed we don’t want them hanging around with the freedom to do it again.

Let me be clear — this is going to be the political popular issue to take on. We face some hard choices, but we are not the first states to go through this. One of the wonderful things about the modern world in 2014 is the availability of information and collaboration between governments on “best practices” for seemingly intractable problems.

Two states in particular represent the best and worst of how to go about prison reform: Texas and California. California ignored the problem for too long and failed to make good decisions. A federal judge eventually came in and said they had to release 10 percent of their prisoners across the board. Unfortunately that allowed a whole host of terrible people to go free to commit heinous crimes.

Texas, on the other hand, combined sentencing reform with a stronger approach to community corrections, probation and drug rehabilitation. They avoided a federal takeover, but more importantly they avoided mass- releasing criminals across offender categories, and provided cheaper programs for those convicted of non-violent and drug related crimes.

I have worked with both parties in the Legislature to bring in The Council of State Governments, a non-partisan group that helps states achieve best outcomes on long term projects such as sentencing and prison reforms. The Legislature has also impanelled a “Blue Ribbon Committee” of law enforcement officials, judges, and victim’s rights advocates to come up with recommendations on ways Alabama can attack this problem, save money and not release violent criminals back into our neighborhoods.

In the end, the governor and the Legislature will have to summon the political will to pass legislation to solve this crisis. We can no longer ignore it. I believe that this is a problem that we can solve if we work together, because I believe in our state, I believe in our leaders, and more importantly, I believe in our people.

Cam Ward is an Alabama state senator from Alabaster.