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Eight $100 million ideas for prison reform in Alabama

Stephen Cooper

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By Stephen Cooper

Instead of wrapping an $800 million ($1.5 billion over 30 years) albatross around the necks of Alabamians to build four new “super-max” style prisons, here are eight $100 million dollar ideas, each of which, I respectfully submit, are more efficient and morally sound ways to tackle Alabama’s prison problems:

1. Write a check for $100 million right now and give it to attorney Bryan Stevenson and his organization, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Everyone knows that if this ill-advised prison construction plan continues its dizzying flight forward that, when it goes bad, it will be EJI who will ring the alarm bell — as they’ve done before, through the filing of federal lawsuits. Why wait? Why not go ahead and give EJI $100 million bucks right now together with a mandate to use that dough to implement the many, many prison reforms it has been calling for, for many, many years?

2. Commit $100 million of funding to all state public defender offices (like the still nascent Montgomery and Jefferson County Public Defender Offices).  Public defenders don’t just try to “get people off”; they are defenders of both the Alabama and United States Constitutions and an essential check on government power.  Public defender offices are staffed with attorneys, investigators, social workers, and many other individuals committed to a fairer justice system.  The unheralded and heroic work these folks do to make the justice system fair for everyone, to better the lives of their clients and their families and, to prevent recidivism –arguably the biggest factor capable of reducing prison overcrowding — is well worth the investment.

3. By the same token it makes sense to break off $100 million to disperse to social justice groups like the Alabama Post-Conviction Relief Project, Alabama Arise, Project Hope, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Ordinary People Society, Alabama Appleseed, etcetera, etcetera. Unlike Governor Bentley, Speaker Hubbard, and many other Alabama lawmakers primed to mortgage away the future of generations of Alabamians (with this cockamamie prison construction plan), these civic-minded organizations are committed to efforts to keep people out of jails and prisons — not in them.

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4. Invest $100 million to create Drug Courts, Veteran Treatment Courts, and Mental Health Courts, as well as to develop other proven diversionary programs designed to divert low-level non-violent offenders out of the criminal justice system (steering them clear of incarceration . . .).

5. Spend $100 million on public and private schools in Alabama. Seriously investing in the future of Alabama’s children would go an immeasurably long way towards stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.

6. Repeat number 5. (Yeah, it’s that important).

7. Use $100 million dollars to combat systemic poverty in Alabama. It is axiomatic that crime and incarceration rates fall the more a state does to lift its citizens out of poverty. It’s the right thing to do.

8. For the same reason, Alabama should spend $100 million on economic development, particularly in the poorest urban and rural areas of the state. Jobs that pay livable wages and provide families with economic security are, similar to a child’s access to a quality education, among the most important things a state government can provide its citizens to breed future captains of industry, leaders, and all variety of role models — and not just more convicts and more inmates.

About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.

 

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Opinion | Gerald Dial is a steady hand for Alabama

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Alabama’s economy is growing…but it can do so much more. The key is having the right leadership in all elected positions, people who have vision.

So far, Governor Kay Ivey has shown she has what it takes to make important changes and place our state in a position to win.

Did you know agriculture and forestry together are the biggest industry in Alabama? They contribute $70 billion each year toward the economy. Nearly 9 million acres and 600,000 Alabamians are involved in this huge business that benefits us all.

I would know; I was Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries several years back. During that time, we put Alabama’s top asset at the forefront of economic development.

John McMillian, our current commissioner who is term-limited and running for Treasurer, has done a good job, and now Alabama is at another crossroads. We need the next Ag Commissioner to find new and more ways to grow our state.

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Gerald Dial is just that person. He and I served together in the State Senate, and his Christian values and new ideas are exactly what Alabama needs right now. The key to making government work for the people is to have someone who can’t be bought but also knows how government works. Gerald Dial fits the bill, and I trust him explicitly.

Just recently Gerald Dial created a solution to a massive problem in our state – the opioid crisis. This pandemic is killing thousands of our citizens each year. Instead of sitting back and think it isn’t his problem, Gerald Dial petitioned the drug manufacturer, Kaleo, of naoxolene, an injection that can save someone experiencing an opioid overdose. The delivery device is called EVZIO.

The result is 1,744 FREE doses of an overdose-reversing drug to Alabama’s volunteer rescue squads to combat the opioid crisis. That $4 million donation to our rural first responders equates to nearly 2,000 lives that will be saved.

I could go on and on about Gerald Dial because he’s such a wonderful friend and effective public servant, but what I want to ask you is to support Gerald Dial in the July 17th Republican Primary Runoff for Commissioner of Agriculture and Industries.

The powerful special interest groups in Montgomery don’t want Gerald elected, because they are scared he won’t take marching order like their preferred candidate. I don’t know about you, but that’s all I need to know about Gerald Dial – the powerbrokers don’t want him, so I do!

Charles Bishop was a Republican member of the Alabama Senate. He represented District 5 from 2006 to 2010. The district covers portions of Winston, Walker, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson Counties. He was elected as Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Agriculture and Industries for the term 1999 to 2003. 

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Opinion | Sez you, Nikki Haley

Kristina Scott

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While “experts” like the United States’ Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley say it “is patently ridiculous for the U.N. to examine poverty in America,” Alabamians know that what’s actually ridiculous is the hundreds of thousands of Alabamians who live in poverty.

Haley’s comments came in reaction to United Nations Special Rapporteur Philip G. Alston’s examination of poverty in Alabama and a handful of other American states.

Alabama experts also failed to prioritize poverty and homelessness as a serious issue facing the state in the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama’s (PARCA’s) Alabama Priorities poll. Those experts are business leaders, civic leaders, nonprofit and philanthropic leaders, political science professors, and political journalists.

In contrast, the Alabama voters PARCA surveyed ranked poverty and homelessness as the fifth most serious issue facing Alabama. Alabamians’ concerns about poverty cut across party affiliation, ideology, age, gender, education, and income.

In order to educate both experts and the general public, Alabama Possible releases a poverty data sheet each year. We recently released our 2018 Alabama Poverty Data Sheet in June, and it highlights poverty, economic security, educational attainment, and food security.

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There is good news to share: poverty is at its lowest rate since we started publishing the Alabama Poverty Data Sheet in 2010. Just over 800,000 Alabamians live below the poverty line, which is $24,257 for a family of four.

Those of us who are concerned about poverty can’t rest, however. Alabama is still the sixth poorest state in the U.S., and 17.2 percent of Alabamians live below the federal poverty line. Fifteen of Alabama’s 67 counties have a poverty rate higher than 25 percent. Eight counties have a poverty rate higher than 30 percent.

On top of high poverty rates, Alabama’s median household income is not keeping up with the nation’s. The typical Alabama household earned $46,309 in 2016, which is $11,308 less than the national median household income. That gap has grown by $1,547 over the past five years.

No wonder we are concerned about poverty and homelessness. It is getting harder and harder for Alabamians to afford the cost of living.

We also can’t overlook how our state’s complicated racial history impacts poverty and economic opportunity. All eight of the counties with poverty rates above 30 percent are majority African American, and Alabama’s median household income for African Americans is $21,165 less than that of white families.

Alabama policymakers have focused on workforce development with good reason. Alabama faces two great hurdles: not having enough good jobs that support a family and not having enough qualified workers for the jobs we do have. That’s why Alabama Possible supported the efforts of the Alabama Workforce Council in developing the Success Plus strategic plan.

Poverty is complex, and having an income is just part of the puzzle. What about hunger and food insecurity? Basic sanitation systems and clean water? Accessible, affordable mental and physical health care? The opportunity to vote?

Alabama doesn’t have a plan to address these matters. What can we do about it?

Here’s one idea: let’s make it abundantly clear to “experts” that they should be worried about what we think of them, rather than what they think of us.

Use the data sheet to start conversations at your house of worship, in civic clubs and with your colleagues to think about how to better serve low-income people and break down multigenerational barriers to prosperity. Talk about why the issue is important to you; maybe you grew up poor, or you teach in a low-income school and see how the grinding reality of poverty impacts your students.

Don’t forget that it is an election year, and there are plenty of opportunities to talk with candidates who want your vote. You can interact with them on social media, at candidate forums and even at the grocery store.  Ask them how they intend to address poverty and homelessness.

And if anyone tries to blame the poor for their economic circumstances, or make excuses for why Alabama is so poor, you can do what Alabamians have done for generations: say “sez you.”

Kristina is executive director of Alabama Possible, a statewide nonprofit organization that removes barriers to prosperity.

 

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Opinion | Groups, initiatives align under AlabamaWorks! success plus

Ed Castile

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Alabama is moving quickly in developing a trained workforce that meets the needs of business, with major changes in recent years in how our workforce development system operates.

The process began four years ago when the Alabama Workforce Council recommended a re-alignment of our workforce programs. The Alabama Legislature responded by passing legislation to make the changes possible, and Gov. Kay Ivey, then lieutenant governor, fully supported these measures. Today, Alabama’s workforce landscape is strikingly different.   

One of the Alabama Workforce Council’s recommendations was to reorganize the state’s 10 workforce regions into seven. The Legislature approved funding for staff to run these councils, and these regional workforce directors work closely with the business community as well as the Alabama Department of Commerce, Alabama Community College System, K-12, the Alabama Department of Labor, the Career Center System and other related agencies, to identify and meet the needs of industry and workers. In addition, Commerce and the ACCS have assigned liaisons who link each region to workforce training and other resources.

The Legislature also required that at least 75 percent of the voting members come from the business community within each region. This raises the level of engagement with Alabama businesses.

Another significant change in the streamlining of workforce development was the realignment of the Workforce Innovations Opportunity Act program. The three local WIOA boards were expanded to seven and aligned with the seven workforce areas. Many business leaders from around the state were appointed to the state’s WIOA board and, in some areas, to the local boards. Again, this change has resulted in a more even approach to WIOA funding and a significant increase in business engagement across the state.

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In 2016, the Legislature approved the creation of Apprenticeship Alabama, designed to increase the number of apprentices to assist companies in building their pipeline of workers.

In its first year, 2017, Apprenticeship Alabama significantly increased the number of apprentices statewide. And while the modest tax credit was a new benefit to companies, the fact that there was an office dedicated to helping businesses register their programs with the U.S. Department of Labor enabled the program to grow. Navigating the waters of federal registration can be tedious, but the Apprenticeship Alabama staff, along with the regional councils, are dedicated to assisting companies with the expansion of this training program.

At first glance, the various components of workforce development appear to be separate entities with separate goals. When you look closer, however, they form the backbone of Gov. Ivey’s recently announced AlabamaWorks Success Plus initiative.

The Success Plus education attainment initiative is the cornerstone of the governor’s “Strong Start. Strong Finish” endeavor. Ivey announced that by 2025, Alabama MUST have 500,000 additional workers who have more than a high school diploma.

Many high schools and career technical programs offer students credentials that qualify within Success Plus. Some students involved in dual-enrollment programs with the ACCS receive not only a high school diploma, but an associate degree or certificate.

Without doubt, one of the most important factors in the development of Alabama’s workforce system has the foresight and the wok of the Alabama Workforce Council, a business-led advisory group for the governor, the Legislature and agency heads. Under the Chairmanship of Zeke Smith, from Alabama Power, the council has provided the sounding board needed by among business and state leaders and the vehicle for candid discussions about workforce development initiatives. The importance of the AWC cannot be understated.

Finally, workforce development in this state would not be complete without the work of AIDT. AIDT is Alabama’s workforce training incentive program. It assists both existing businesses in expansion and new businesses moving to the state. AIDT is consistently ranked in the top three training incentive programs in the country, and we are extremely proud of our ranking. Day in and day out, AIDT staff are boots on the ground assisting more than 130 projects across the state helping fill thousands of jobs.

Of course, the best entry point to any job-seekers is the 50-plus Alabama Career Centers located strategically across Alabama, managed by the Alabama Department of Labor.

When you build a team, the goal is to be the best. This involves uniting team members who are good at a particular position. On their own, they may not make a significant impact. But working as a unit, they perform like a well-oiled machine. During the past four years, we’ve been putting this team together, and we’re seeing the fruits of our labor.

Why does this matter to you? Simply said, these changes, these new initiatives, program improvements and alignments will keep Alabama in the game for new industry and jobs. We must have an educated and skilled workforce for our businesses in the world to come.

For more information about these and other programs within Alabama’s education and workforce infrastructure, visit www.alabamaworks.com.

Ed Castile is deputy secretary of the Alabama Department of Commerce and director of AIDT.

 

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Eight $100 million ideas for prison reform in Alabama

by Stephen Cooper Read Time: 3 min
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