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The Prison Bill is a Bad Investment

By Rep. Darrio Melton

As elected officials, looking for solutions to our state’s problems is often a delicate balancing act. We have to determine the best way to use the resources we have while maximizing the benefit per dollar to the taxpayers–in the business community, this is called Return on Investment.

It’s clear Governor Bentley didn’t go to business school, because his $1.5 prison bill would get laughed out of a boardroom.

Bentley wants to put $1.5 billion on the state’s credit card so we can build new prisons. By the time the money comes due, we’ll owe double the amount we borrowed.  Meanwhile, the Senate just voted not to repay the $437 million we borrowed back in 2012–and they want us to believe they’ll make good on this $1.5 billion credit card bill for the prisons.

If we’re going to borrow from our future to fund our present, I think the only solution is to invest those resources in our future.

When we see a spike in our prison population, as we have in Alabama, the problem isn’t an increase in the number of people who can’t tell right from wrong. There are systemic issues that are failing our communities which we must address.

Consider if your roof was leaking in your house. You could keep putting buckets all around, catching drips and emptying them as fast as they fill up, or you could climb up on the roof and stop the water from leaking.

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That’s where we are with our prisons: we’re trying to stop a growing problem with patchwork solutions, never once looking at why the problem is growing in the first place.

Building more prisons is just adding more buckets to catch the water dripping into our house.  It’s time to fix the roof.

We can fix the roof by investing our money into schools instead of prisons. When children have the chance to learn, grow, and reach their full potential–and more importantly, to know they have potential–they make better decisions and are less likely to fall into a life of crime as they grow up. When you consider this stunning statistic: we determine the number of beds we will need in our prisons by third grade literacy rates, it’s clear that educating our children well from an early age is a huge patch in the solution.

We can fix the roof by investing our money into our communities to ensure that hard work pays for men and women across this state. There is no denying that poverty and crime are linked–that is, higher rates of poverty in a community are linked to higher rates of domestic violence, higher rates of drug use, and higher rates of non-violent crimes like bad checks and fraud.  When we provide opportunities in the communities that need it most, we can lower our poverty rates, promote healthy families, and decrease the need to turn to crime in the first place.

We fix the roof by investing in rehabilitation rather than retribution. Often people who commit crimes aren’t malicious or vindictive–they’re simply stuck. Rather than locking those people in jail and throwing away the keys, let’s help them learn a trade, gain valuable life skills, and obtain the confidence necessary to stay on the right track. Especially as we see children starting down the wrong paths, we can help those young people find their passion and invest in their futures. Giving judges the flexibility to rehabilitate people rather than implement mandatory minimum sentences for offenders could go a long way.

We can fix the roof in so many ways that would be more worthwhile than new prisons. With this prison plan, we’re asking our children to pay a credit card bill for a project that will directly impact their generation: let’s give them a bill worth paying, rather than sticking them deeper in debt with a roof that still leaks.

Rep. Darrio Melton is a Democrat from Selma. He was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives in 2010 and currently serves as the Chair of the House Democratic Caucus.

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