By Rep. Darrio Melton
The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation in the world.
As a percent of the total population, there are more Americans in prison than in Russia, North Korea, Syria or Iran.
These tough on crime” policies that began with the War on Drugs have led to a higher prison population than we ever planned for, which has caused prison overcrowding, budget strains and a growing segment of the population with a criminal record, rendering them unable to get a job or find housing.
Here in Alabama, our prisons hold 28,000 people, when they were built to only hold 14,000. As a result of this overcrowding, our prison budget is strained and stretched–we spend only $26 per day per inmate, whereas the national average is $62 per day.
As a state, we have some tough decisions to make. We can’t keep operating under the status quo.
Option one is that we continue at the current rate of incarceration and find an additional source of revenue to adequately fund our prison systems.
Option two is to find a way to reduce the prison population so that the Department of Corrections can operate under the ideal budget.
Now, I will not ever advocate for murderers, rapists, child abusers, or other violent offenders to be allowed back into our communities until they have served their time, but there are a lot of non-violent offenders in our prisons who could benefit from the opportunity to make a change for the better.
Many of our neighbors who are locked in prisons come from underprivileged communities, broken homes and poor schools. Rather than incarcerate them and make it more difficult to rehabilitate when they are released, why don’t we begin the rehabilitation process as soon as possible?
Not only should we work to educate those who are starting down the road to a life of crime, but we should work to give them the tools and skills necessary to escape the vicious cycle.
And this shouldn’t start after they’re already in the system.
Our children need the opportunity to learn in a five-star classroom. They need the resources to pursue a college degree or technical training. They need to know they are worth more and deserve better than an orange jumpsuit and an inmate number.
It’s time we stop determining the number of beds we will need in our prisons by third-grade literacy rates.
When we invest in the future for the next generation by treating all children like they have an unlimited amount of God-given potential, we will reduce the incarceration rates for the next generation.
When we offer opportunities for young men and women to break the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence, we will reduce the incarceration rates for this generation.
And when we fund our prisons as centers for rehabilitation, not just holding cells, we will see the recidivism rates decline and prison population decrease.
However we address it, we must make this change. We must tip the funding from prisons to education. We must break this cycle.
Representative Darrio Melton is a Democrat from Selma. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2010.