Alabama’s prison system needs major overhaul

Published 11:19 am Tuesday, July 8, 2014

By CHRIS GEORGE / Guest Columnist

You’ve read the articles, you’ve heard the speeches…“Our prisons are severely overcrowded and we are on the brink of federal takeover.”

There is no doubt that these statements are true. The state prison system is stressed, as well as the budget that funds the prisons, and we have to take measures quickly to correct the problem or we’ll all feel the impact when we are ordered to release thousands of prisoners well before their sentence is complete. As the committees meet to discuss solutions to these problems, the citizens need to understand where we’re headed and why.

They also need to know that there are many options other than building new prisons. A complete overhaul in how we sentence convicted criminals, where we place them and how they are supervised is important, but so is correcting their behavior. You can’t reduce the prison population without reducing recidivism. Their sentence is multi-faceted and includes punishment for the crime, restitution to the entity or person in which the crime was committed upon, and rehabilitation of the convicted so that they will not commit future crime.

We must also understand the reasons in which most people commit crimes. A great majority of property crimes are committed by those to support their drug habit and, at times, crimes of violence are committed by those with mental disease. Improving efforts for court-mandated attendance must be made in areas of substance abuse and mental health programs. There will be costs that we will incur for these programs, but if we can reduce our prison population and return people to society as functioning and contributing members, then areas such as welfare will see reductions. People will find jobs that have insurance, which should reduce their dependence on Medicaid.

A final area that needs to be reviewed is who we send to the prisons. Prisons are education camps for future criminals. Someone who has never been to prison and has committed a non-violent crime should be sentenced to state time, but should not physically go to prison, especially a young person. The lifestyle that you have to conform to in prison often leaves you no other choice than to just continue to be bad or become a better criminal.

In order to do this, county jails could take on the burden of housing these inmates. The cost to expand facilities already in place is much less than acquiring land and building a new prison from the ground up. I understand that these jails also have problems with overcrowding, but we could establish a regional system in which the more sustainable jails such as Baldwin, Madison and Shelby counties house these first-time offenders. Rules allowing the local governments to utilize state sentenced inmates for common responsibilities, such as cutting the grass and picking up trash, could easily alleviate the strain that facilities’ maintenance has in maintaining our many public access locations.

I have confidence in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative and the Alabama Joint Prison Task Force that is currently under way, and look forward to the many opportunities we have to reduce the burden on our prison system and the strain on the General Fund.

Lt. Chris George is the commander of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office Criminal Investigation Division.