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Smart on Crime: Maria Morris with SPLC, Part One

By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY–”Those of us who regularly think about the prison system in Alabama, realize it is pretty much broken,” says Maria Morris. Morris serves as managing attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Alabama office where she guides education and juvenile justice reform efforts in the state.

Morris says that the “grossly overcrowding,” in Alabama’s prisons is causing a number of problems.

“Overcrowded prisons are very costly to maintain,” said Morris. “Not only in general cost but in retaining staff and due to high turnover–always having to hire and train new staff.”

Morris says that overcrowded prisons are “dangerous to staff and inmates.”

“Overcrowding leads to a variety of health issue that put inmates and correctional employees at greater risk of disease,” said Morris.

Numerous medical studies have shown that many diseases even drug-resistant ones are born and fostered in overpopulated correctional facilities. According to the CDC such infectious diseases as Tuberculosis (TB), HIV and Hepatitis A, B, and C Virus are the biggest threats inside overcrowded prison walls.

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“When staff contracts the diseases from inmates they in turn bring them home to the community,” said Morris. “This is also true when inmates are released back into their communities.”

This is just one of seldom considered repercussions of prison overcrowding according to Morris. “This is a serious public health issue.”

One of the other problems that occurs when people are incarcerated for years is “many sit in prison bored and their hours are filled with conversation with other inmates, many times what they learn is how to be better criminals,” she said.

Morris says that the prison overcrowding in Alabama prison must be brought down.

“There are only two ways to bring down the prison populations, giving lesser or alternative sentencing, decreasing the time people spend inside,” Morris said. “And I think SB386 maybe, just may be, a good start to that, but we don’t know yet.”

SB386 also known as The Sentencing Reform Bill, was carried in the legislature by the Co-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster). Ward has said of the SB386, “This bill will put forward guidelines for non-violent offenders, reduce prison population and put the state on a path to Truth in Sentencing. Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the United States. This bill will allow us to alleviate some of that.”

About 65 percent of the states inmates are non-violent offenders, Ward has said that SB386 will also allow judges to sentence non-violent offenders to community corrections, mental health court and drug court. “This will slow the prison population growth allowing violent offenders to remain in prison longer,” said Ward.

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Morris says she is looking to see if the commission makes recommendation for sentencing guidelines that will “shorten sentences and divert people from prison” and if so she questions if there will be legislative support for an oversight of community programs.

Morris understands that it will take funding to make the type of programs that Ward has talked about work, but she makes it clear that community-based programs are less expensive than keeping inmate incarcerated in an overburdened correctional facility.

Morris has her concerns about the final results of SB386, “The sentencing Commission will also be proposing aggravating and mitigating factors to get out of presumptive sentences,” Morris says. “It will be very important how they do that. Aggravating factors could be written so broadly everyone gets out, so this is something we need to watch closely.”

In the next installment Ms Morris speaks about how to keep school age kids from entering the Juvenile Justice System.

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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