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Smart on Crime at the intersection of Law, Politics and Science

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Editor’s note: Over the next several months the Alabama Political Reporter will publish a series of articles aimed at how our state can fix its broken prison system.

We will solicit the best minds in the state to give us answers to this dire problem.

We urge the governor, along with the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate to appoint a panel of lawmakers, judges, citizens and journalist to look into how to restructure the prison system to answer the crisis at hand. The reason journalist should be included is because we are the ones who will have to tell the story to the people of Alabama. If journalists fail to tell the story properly then any answers from the commission will have less than a fair chance of winning public support. 


MONTGOMERY–The State of Alabama has a prison population of over 31,000 inmates currently incarcerated in 29 facilities across the state.

Alabama’s prison system is at almost 200 percent of capacity and growing.

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With budget failures, prison overcrowding, court backlogs and thousands on parole who are under supervised the ADOC system is on the brink of collapse.

However, the ADOC has a vital component toward turning this crisis in to success and that is leadership. Commissioner Kim Thomas is a man deeply committed and ready to meet the challenges ahead. But he will need a great deal of help.

Alabama has proven it can be tough on crime, the question is with all these failure factors facing the state can it be smart on crime?

The biggest obstacle confronting Alabama prison crisis is not the facts on the ground but the political realities of reelections.

No state lawmaker wants to appear to be soft of crime, every politician knows that on whole the knee jerk reaction to lawbreakers in the state is, “Lock them up and throw away the key.”

Alabamians for the most part are conservative people and want punitive justice for criminals.

However, the state would be hard pressed to find many who would vote to raise taxes to build more prisons to enforce this ideology.

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If the state is not going to build more prisons–and it will not and cannot–then the only way to reduce prison overcrowding and reduce the cost of incarceration is to control how many people enter prison and now many leave.

There are only two ways to reduce the inmate population, put fewer people in prison or let more people out. Being smart on crime will mean that fewer people will enter the system through a series of alternative sentencing reforms and other forms of mandated programs.

Smart on crime will mean more people will be released from prison by using alternative parole and probation methods.

Both of these will need to be accomplished by using good science in evaluating offenders, good guidelines in sentencing and lastly political cover for office holders and state leadership.

Few things will bring republicans and democrats together but a financial crisis is generally a good starting point.

Currently, Alabama spends approximately $40 a day on prison inmates, that is around $40 a day less than any other state.

With the 2012 and 2013 budget crisis the state doesn’t even have the funds to meet that meager requirement. In September the voters will be asked to allow the state to raid the ATF of $450 million dollars to prop-up the failed Medicaid and prison system. Many think that this is a fool’s errand that will bring the State Legislature back into special session to once again try and fix the state’s broken programs.

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With no more money and little time, the state budget restrains may very well see thousands of prisoners released back into society without a plan to manage their release. Currently, Alabama’s probation and parole officers manage over two cases apiece. This number alone in unmanageable by any standards and will be exacerbated by further flooding the system.

The only alternative is a smart on crime solution.

During the 2012 legislative session a bill carried by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) was approved to bring about alternative sentencing. Many see Ward’s bill as a beginning but even it had to be passed using a plausible deniability method. In short the bill will become law next year if no one votes against it.

Yes, as long as no one votes for or against the bill it will become law. Therefore if the alternative sentencing and other provisions in the bill prove politically uncomfortable, at legislator can say, “I didn’t vote for it.” The bill also gives judges in the state the ability to blame guidelines if their sentencing goes bad. Judges already have the flexibility to offer alternative sentencing many are afraid to use them. Cleaver as this is it is not a solid plan for ultimate reform but it is a start.

Over decades hard data has been gathered to identify criminal behavior. Likewise assessment tools have been devised to scientifically evaluate prisoners when entering the system, during incarceration and before release. These tools allow justice officials to determine, who should be in the system, who should stay in the system and who could be released. These are very sophisticated applications that can determine with a great degree of accuracy the state of an offender and his or her need for incarceration and treatment.

Rehabilitation has become an ugly word and it is not certain that behavior modification is better in some circles. But we do know that for some individuals, education, treatment and evidenced based retraining does work.

In Larry Yackle’s book “Reform and Regret a narrative of Federal District Court’s involvement with the prisons in Alabama from 1971 to 1984,” there is an eery pattern that emerges.

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Our state has a pattern and practice of ignoring the prison problem until the Federal Courts intercede.  This has certainly been a way that some have sought political cover from making the hard choices on prison reform.

But this time the stakes are extremely high as the likely hood of a Federal takeover of the state’s prisons will completely bankrupt the state.

A failure to act could lead to a crisis from which it would take a generation to recover. No the sky is not falling but the future of crime and punishment is calling.

Today, we rely on science in almost every aspect of our lives. We even expect science to be the best aid toward solve crime.  Shouldn’t we begin to use science to fix our broken prison system. The answers are available at the intersection of law, politics and science.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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