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State leaders have lost their credibility on prisons

Craig Ford

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By Rep. Craig Ford

With all the attention being given to the special election for the U.S. Senate, you may not have seen what has been happening in Montgomery with the prison crisis.

Last year, Gov. Bentley proposed a plan to build four new “super prisons” at a cost of about $800 million. At the time, a lawsuit had been filed claiming that the state’s prisons were overcrowded and did not provide adequate safety and healthcare services, which is a violation of the 8th Amendment that prohibits “cruel and unusual punishment.”

State leaders’ claimed that building new prisons would solve all the problems by allowing the state to house the same number of prisoners without having to hire more guards or mental healthcare professionals.

But legislators couldn’t agree on a construction plan, and the court ultimately ruled that our prisons are “horrendously inadequate,” and, more specifically, that there are “serious systemic deficiencies” in the delivery of mental health services, driven by chronic overcrowding and understaffing.

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And even the overcrowding may not be as bad as state leaders have claimed.

State leaders have claimed that our prison system is at 160 percent capacity. But that number does not take into account housing additions that have been made after original construction at prison facilities.

For example, the Decatur Work Center and the Decatur Work Release Center combined were designed to house 128 prisoners, but a 340 bed dorm was added in 2008, bringing the total capacity to 505 (the facilities have 525 inmates assigned to them, meaning they are actually operating at a capacity rate of 104 percent).

But in order to make their case for building new prisons, state leaders are excluding the 340 bed dorm from the calculations so that they can say, for example, that the Decatur Work Center is operating at 894 percent of capacity (designed for 37 inmates, but housing 331).

That’s why they are careful to use the phrase “design capacity” instead of just saying “capacity.” Basically, if it wasn’t part of the original design, they aren’t counting it.

That’s not to say that we don’t have overcrowding in our prison system because we do! It’s just not as bad as state leaders are making it seem.

The real problem is that we don’t have enough mental health professionals and prison guards (there are nearly 12 inmates for every one corrections officer).

Some renovations and new construction may be necessary. But expecting to fix our prison problems by building new prisons makes about as much sense as expecting to fix failing schools simply by building a new school.

New buildings can only ease the overcrowding. They will do nothing to improve mental health or make prisons safer, which is as important for the officers and staff working in these prisons as it is for the prisoners living in them.

And yet, despite the court’s orders to resolve the mental health and staffing problems, state leaders are continuing to push for new prison construction, even as they claim that they don’t have the money to afford the adequate amount of mental health professionals and correctional officers needed to fix the problem.

“We just don’t have the money in the General Fund right now,” state Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, told al.com back in October.

But last month, the state hired a project management team to develop a master plan to build and renovate state prisons. That team is also looking at finding private entities to build facilities that the state would then lease.

So, basically, what state leaders are saying is that the state can’t afford to hire the number of correctional officers and mental health professionals needed to satisfy the court and resolve this issue once and for all, but the state can somehow afford to spend a billion dollars or more building and/or leasing new prisons.

What kind of sense does that make?

Properly staffing our prisons would basically only cost about $5 million or so a year more than what the state has already agreed to spend. So, for the same amount of money that the state would spend on building new prisons (which would have to be replaced in 40 or 50 years), we could properly staff our current prisons for the next 160 years.

Our state leaders have lost all credibility when it comes to the prison crisis. Their math simply doesn’t add up, and the only reasonable explanation for this continued push to build new “super prisons” is because somebody who makes big campaign contributions is hoping to get a taxpayer-funded, multi-million dollar government contract out of it.

Rep. Craig Ford represents Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives. He served as the House Minority Leader from 2010-2016.

 

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Opinion | Alabama’s infrastructure: A municipal perspective

Mayor Marty Handlon

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Alabamians use municipal infrastructure throughout the state to access jobs, schools, grocery stores, hospitals, parks, entertainment venues and church services – making infrastructure a significant and urgent quality of life issue. The state’s infrastructure needs are at a critical point, especially relative to their impact on our cities.

Alabaster, a medium sized municipality, is struggling to provide the road infrastructure to adequately move a population of approximately 34,000 (and growing) in and around our city, as well as accommodate the traffic associated with our economic footprint of over 100,000. Alabaster is not alone in this struggle. Infrastructure challenges will continue to escalate through the trickle-down effect as metro/urban areas understandably remain in the posture of revitalization and attracting additional growth in the surrounding suburb communities. Like many suburbs, Alabaster is appealing to families for the quality of life provided through excellent public safety, great schools, plenty of parks with children’s programs and safe roads to travel.

Motor Fuel Tax Increase – Why this is imperative!

The Legislature is considering adopting an additional motor fuel tax to address the rapidly escalating statewide demands of infrastructure maintenance and enhancement. Therefore, it is important for the citizens of Alabaster and our surrounding communities to be knowledgeable about road funding and how it is distributed so they can boldly and confidently express to legislators the need for adequate and equitable funding for all local governments.

Alabama’s demographics have shifted significantly in the last 50 years. Across the state, greater than 64 percent now live in cities or towns. In Shelby County, 148,641 of the total 213,605 population – almost 70 percent of citizens – live in cities and towns, according to the statistical data for 2017. As the largest city in Shelby County, Alabaster encompasses 25.46 square miles, almost 10 percent of the County’s incorporated land area, which includes a combination of state, county and city roadways.

The city currently faces more need in minimum maintenance projects on city streets than the current gas tax allocation supports. For educational purposes, the current annual gasoline tax allocation of approximately $260,000 provides for the resurfacing of three to five residential neighborhood streets each year, depending on distance and the degree of repair necessary. However, when the base of the roadway is severely impaired due to earth movement or sink-hole conditions, repairs must be completed in phases pending availability of funds.

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Our city has experienced this multi-phase type project with Alabaster Blvd – approximately one mile of city street repairs (not resurface) with a low bid of more than $600,000 in 2014 to complete all at one time. The total cost of the project increases dramatically when done in phases, due to mobilization and other economic factors. This multi-year project, in progress for the last four years, is still not complete. We are consistently addressing roads in priority order as it relates to safety – and we’re more often reactive instead of preventative.

The major arteries for traffic to move through and around our city belong to either the state or county.  In order to address a major congestion issue, the city has to become a willing partner contributing funds in a collaborative effort towards improvements. One example is the widening of State Highway 119, which moves traffic from one end of our city to another into the city of Montevallo. In 2013, Alabaster was awarded a Federal grant of up to $10 million for approximately two miles of roadway widening, with the city participating in a 20 percent match to the 80 percent of federal dollars. Currently, no state funds are allocated to this project. The project was put on hold earlier this year because the estimated cost of $20+ million exceeded the grant funding and ALDOT had no available resources to assist in the completion of the project. After two months of conversations with representatives of the Federal Highway Administration, we were granted permission to break the project into two phases and move forward utilizing our existing grant funds.

Many times, collaboration between government agencies allows for projects a local government cannot afford to do on its own. However, as it relates to roads, excessive time and additional requirements, as well as other inefficiencies, are the downsides when collaborating with the Federal Highway Administration and the State due to so many other ongoing projects. It is not quite as bad when a municipality partners with a local county government, but the efficiency inhibitors are still present.

Alabama counties and municipalities, as well as the taxpayers statewide, benefit from savings in eliminating red tape and inefficiencies. Future economic and community development projects in the Shelby/Jefferson County areas will be defined by the infrastructure it can offer. The same is true with every region of the state.

Current Motor Fuel Tax Distribution Is Inadequate

The current motor fuel tax distribution formula, which provides 50 percent of funds to the State and 50 percent to local governments with counties receiving 80 percent and municipalities receiving 20 percent, was developed in the 1960s and is no longer equitable to citizens living in municipal jurisdictions to address the growing demands on our municipal infrastructure. Therefore, municipal officials are advocating that the Legislature adopt a 21st Century distribution formula that would provide 50 percent of the funds to the State, 25 percent to counties and 25 percent to municipalities.

Alabaster’s community is actively engaged with its legislative delegation on this critical issue as they experienced the dangerous bottle neck contributing to more accidents and lengthy delays on the Shelby County portion of Interstate 65, and even more so after the delay in widening Highway 119 where emergency vehicles can’t get to the scene of an accident due to the congestion. Our delegation listened.

The voices of voters make the difference!

We are proud of the State’s history of fiscally conscientious leaders making Alabama a great and affordable place to live. No one is to blame for the rising cost of goods and services over periods of time; it just costs more to maintain the same in every industry, including government. That being said, Alabama is not the same as it once was – we have grown and developed, shifting from rural areas to bustling suburbs.

I can’t stress enough how important it is for our legislators hear from their constituents about the public safety issues and escalating need in their communities. It would be wonderful if the voice of local government and public safety professionals were enough; however, it is always going to take the voices of the voters to make the difference between crumbling congested roads and safe highways.

State and local leaders cannot afford to sacrifice the public’s safety and quality of life by adhering to inadequate funding formulas of the past. As we have implored people and businesses to invest in our communities and our state for the benefit of our citizens, we owe them the return on their investment of providing the infrastructure needed for safe success in their mobility.

Please contact your legislators and let them know that infrastructure is a priority issue for you as a citizen and for us as a state!

Marty Handlon is a Certified Public Accountant with a Master’s in Business Administration and more than 20 years’ experience in accounting and financial management. She was elected Mayor of Alabaster in October 2012.

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Opinion | The light and life of President George H.W. Bush

Bradley Byrne

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Our nation came together last week as we mourned the loss of a truly great American. No matter our race, religion, creed, or political party, we were drawn toward the light that was President George H.W. Bush.

His life spanned nearly one hundred years of American history and was dedicated to serving the United States.

History often records the works of great leaders. George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill all led with a sense of service and devotion to their people. But what makes a leader truly special is humility, humor, and a deep moral code guiding their every day.

President Bush embodied those very attributes.

His biographer, Jon Meacham, summed up the Bush life code best in his eulogy: “Tell the truth. Don’t blame people. Be strong. Do your best. Try hard. Forgive. Stay the course.”

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In every walk of life, President Bush did just those things. Integrity guided everything he undertook, and his lifetime of achievements testify to this. He was a decorated war hero in the Navy during WWII, an extremely successful businessman in Texas, Congressman, Ambassador to the United Nations, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, Chief of the U.S. Liaison to the People’s Republic of China, Director of the Central Intelligence Agency, Vice President, and President of the United States of America.

His sense of humor was always charming, sometimes teasing, but never out of malice or needling. He knew how to tell and take a good joke, and he loved to make people laugh.

He took everything he did seriously and with dignity. His first and foremost goal was to serve the American people to the best of his ability and let the thousand points of light in our communities shine bright by one small act of kindness and devotion to each other at a time.

In his inaugural address, President Bush emphasized this point: “What do we want the men and women who work with us to say when we are no longer there? That we were more driven to succeed than anyone around us? Or that we stopped to ask if a sick child had gotten better, and stayed a moment there to trade a word of friendship?”

Since his presidency, George H.W. Bush has remained an example of leadership. For him, it was never about accolades as much as it was about service to the American people.

He was the brightest of those thousand points of light in everything he did. The light that shone through him came from his devotion to his country, to his family, and to God.

I had the honor to pay my respects to President Bush in the Capitol Rotunda and attend the funeral service held in the National Cathedral last week. It was the most moving church service I have ever attended. The testimony shared by everyone there spoke to a life well lived and firmly grounded.

He loved life and loved the people he spent it with. As his son, President George W. Bush, said at the service, “The idea is to die young as late as possible. … As he aged, he taught us how to grow old with dignity, humor and kindness. And, when the good Lord finally called, how to meet Him with courage and with joy in the promise of what lies ahead.”

President George H.W. Bush will be remembered as a true American leader: someone who served totally, cared deeply, laughed fully, and loved completely.

As we move on to the New Year, I hope that in some small way we can embody just a small measure of those traits. If we do, one can only imagine how much brighter the light of our nation will shine.

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Opinion | School boards are choosing systems over students by calling for scholarship repeal

Rachel Blackmon Bryars

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Boards representing three of the state’s largest public school systems – Mobile, Baldwin and Montgomery counties – recently passed resolutions calling for a repeal of Alabama’s landmark tax credit scholarships for low income families.

They claim that the small yet popular program created in 2013 by the Alabama Accountability Act has “caused harm to the financial wellbeing” of their cash-strapped systems.

But is this accurate?

Truth is, Alabama is now collecting more money to educate fewer students. Overall, the statewide education budget has grown since the scholarships were first offered. Meanwhile, enrollment has steadily decreased over the past five years, reports Al.com.

Of these three systems in particular, each have received significant funding increases while two saw decreases in the number of students they served.

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According to an analysis of state budget data performed by Ryan Cantrell, a school choice advocate who helped craft the scholarship program:

·      Mobile’s share of state funding increased by nearly 8 percent since 2014 while its enrollment shrank by 6 percent from last year.
·      Montgomery’s funding has increased by 5 percent while its overall student population decreased by more than 7 percent.
·      And Baldwin’s share of state education dollars increased by a whopping 22.5 percent.

Even a rural system like Tallapoosa County, whose board also called for the scholarships to be repealed, has seen its funding grow by 7 percent while its enrollment shrank by nearly 4 percent since 2013, according to Warren Callaway, executive director of Scholarships For Kids.

As for the scholarships? The program represents only one-half of one percent of the state’s multi-billion-dollar education trust fund, which we just learned grew by $428 million, or nearly 7 percent, over last year, according to Al.com.

Still, some school system officials claim that keeping 99.5 percent of an ever-growing budget for business as usual isn’t enough.

They want it all.

“We’re tight. Things are short,” said Montgomery Public School Board member Melissa Snowden in a WSFA report. “You know we have a lot of needs and so every bit counts.”

We’ve heard from the school boards, but what do parents and students think of the scholarships?

Ask Mobile County resident and mother-of-five Alleane West.

“It was a relief that nobody would understand,” West said in an Alabama Opportunity Scholarship video about the program’s impact on her family. “You know, you’re a single mom with boys trying to not make them a statistic.”

West’s oldest son, Nick, used the scholarship to attend McGill-Toolen High School where his classmates named him “Most Likely to Succeed.” He earned a 32 on his ACT and a full scholarship to the University of Alabama in Huntsville.

“It is hard when you are a parent trying to raise men, and to keep them away as much as possible from what is really out there,” West said.

Ask a Montgomery County parent.

“When my son Carlos was in the fifth grade, he was constantly bullied and I wanted to desperately put him into a private school,” wrote Nyenya Webster in Alabama Daily News, adding that the scholarship “has been a lifesaver for my son.”

“He graduates in two years and is now considering college,” she said. “My son never talked about going to college before …”

And ask a parent in Baldwin County, where you’ll find no failing schools and relatively few scholarship recipients, but where bullying is still a painful reality like anywhere else.

“To witness what this opportunity has done for my son emotionally, has been the best experience I could have as a parent,” said Lauren Hunter, who pursued a scholarship when she learned what her son was enduring at his old school. She said he feels “safe” and has flourished in Catholic school.

Despite the successes that families have experienced, David Tarwater, who offered the resolution shortly before his term recently ended on the Baldwin County Board of Education, believes the program is “stealing money” from students.

“There’s no way to fix it,” he said in a Lagniappe article. “We’re asking for this thing to die and to die a quick death.”

But if this program dies, so may the dreams of thousands of low-income Alabamians who seek nothing more than to put their children in the best learning environment possible – a choice that higher incomes families have always had.

Remember the parable Nathan told King David? A rich man had a great many sheep, yet took a poor man’s only beloved lamb to feed a visitor.

Ask yourself: since Alabama public education gets the overwhelming lion’s share of a growing state budget, and low-income scholarship recipients get only one half of one percent … who is who in the parable?

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is a senior fellow at the Alabama Policy Institute. Contact her at [email protected]

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Opinion | Looking for a day or a person?

John W. Giles

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Are you looking for a particular day or are you looking for a person? Yes, Dec. 25 is Christmas; so after all of the gifts are opened and the living room is cleaned up, it is like; so what do we do now? Many do suffer a little from post-Christmas downheartedness and become a little visionless. Days come and go, but people are with us for a lifetime.

Christmas should be an exciting time of year and like the song says; “It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year.” People seem to be kinder, a bit more charitable to the downtrodden and those in need; even Ole Ebenezer Scrooge has a changed heart and a sense of charity. Is it giving or receiving gifts, Christmas decorations, Christmas carols, Christmas bonuses from our job or a sense of expectation? I would suggest that it goes much deeper than the expectation of a day or material benefits, this unexplained expectation can be found buried deep in the treasures of the Season of Advent.

What is Advent? How does it relate to Christmas? Many expressions of Christianity throughout the world still use the ancient Liturgical calendar, which is a series of religious feasts and seasons celebrated year round. The early New Testament Church inherited many of these feasts and celebrations from ancient Jewish customs, traditions, ancestry, feasts and celebrated events between mankind and the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and the Promise Land of Israel. The Christian Liturgical calendar begins each year with Advent, then Christmas, Ordinary Time, Lent, Easter, then Ordinary Time again and then it starts all over again.

The Latin word for Advent is adventus, which means arrival or appearance. Advent is the arrival of a notable person. It is also a season observed by many expressions of Christianity worldwide, which is a time of expectancy, anticipation, preparation for the Nativity of Jesus and also the return of Jesus known as the second coming. This Season begins four Sundays before Christmas. The Season of Christmas according to the Liturgical calendar begins on Christmas Eve and this year goes through January 13th which is the Feast of the Baptism of the Lord. In reality, Christmas should not be just confined to one day. We will take a look at the Season of Christmas later on.

When we use computers, deeply embedded below the surface of our work on the screen is all of this code language written by computer experts that makes our software run. Deeply embedded into God’s plan and the core of our foundation during this time of year is an unwritten code for a time of expectancy, looking to the future with an excitement and the hope of better days ahead. The promise to the Old Testament prophets was a new King; redeemer of man’s sin was going to come, a Messiah, which means Christ in Greek.

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The New Testament story began when an engaged virgin named Mary was visited by an angel of the Lord named Gabriel. He startled her with a life changing message; she was chosen as the only woman on earth to conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and would bear a son and his name would be Emmanuel, which means, “God With US.” God later appeared to Joseph her husband in a dream and calmed his anxiety about her expecting a child outside of wedlock and told Joseph he would have a son and he shall be named Jesus and he would save his people from their sins. Talk about expectancy; Jesus, Emanuel, God with us was to be borne by a virgin and would be the redeemer or savior of the world. If we ever needed redemption in our life, here it is, as we wait with great expectation of the coming of the savior of the world.

Advent is also symbolized by the Advent wreath, which is a long standing Christian tradition that symbolizes the four weeks leading up to the coming of our savior. It started in Germany among German Lutherans in the 16th century. It is a horizontal wreath made from greenery with four candles which are lit one at the time each Sunday. The circular wreath symbolizes God’s infinite love for us and the greenery symbolizes the evergreen hope of eternal life. The candles lit each week are symbolic of the light of Christ: Week One – Hope, Week Two – Peace, Week Three – Joy and Week Four – Love. Generally all of the candles are the same color except on Week – Three, which is pink symbolizing Gaudete Sunday, which means in Latin to “rejoice” for he is almost here.

Advent is also a celebration of the expectancy of his second coming. For the redeemed, Advent is a time of prayer and fasting serving as a reminder of his nativity birth, but looking with great anticipation of his promised return.  While there are many biblical accounts citing this second coming, Jesus told the parable about the Ten Virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. The bible refers to the redeemed (saved) as the bride of Christ; so these Ten Virgins are symbolic of you and I and meeting the bridegroom in his second coming. Five were prudent and took additional oil with them and the other five were not prudent and did not have staying power, waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. When the announcement came that the bridegroom had arrived, five made it and five did not.

During this Season of Advent, let’s go deeper than the surface of a particular day, Christmas decorations, parades and gifts. Let’s be aware of those around us who need a touch, smile, encouragement, hand up or a note. Let’s also be givers and not takers. Traditionally over time, we have been encouraged to pray and fast, with the expectation of his arrival. Truefully speaking; the oil in the parable of the Ten Virgins is the Holy Spirit; so when we pray for others and fast our opportunities to help others will soar and our lamps will be filled to over flowing. The Holy Spirit is this deeply embedded code that urges us to be charitable, kind and sympathetic to others.

So this Season of Advent leading up to Christmas, try and recalibrate our thinking from a particular day to a particular person.

May God richly bless you and your family during this special Season of Advent.

 

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State leaders have lost their credibility on prisons

by Craig Ford Read Time: 4 min
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