By Stephen Cooper
Instead of wrapping an $800 million ($1.5 billion over 30 years) albatross around the necks of Alabamians to build four new “super-max” style prisons, here are eight $100 million dollar ideas, each of which, I respectfully submit, are more efficient and morally sound ways to tackle Alabama’s prison problems:
1. Write a check for $100 million right now and give it to attorney Bryan Stevenson and his organization, The Equal Justice Initiative (EJI). Everyone knows that if this ill-advised prison construction plan continues its dizzying flight forward that, when it goes bad, it will be EJI who will ring the alarm bell — as they’ve done before, through the filing of federal lawsuits. Why wait? Why not go ahead and give EJI $100 million bucks right now together with a mandate to use that dough to implement the many, many prison reforms it has been calling for, for many, many years?
2. Commit $100 million of funding to all state public defender offices (like the still nascent Montgomery and Jefferson County Public Defender Offices). Public defenders don’t just try to “get people off”; they are defenders of both the Alabama and United States Constitutions and an essential check on government power. Public defender offices are staffed with attorneys, investigators, social workers, and many other individuals committed to a fairer justice system. The unheralded and heroic work these folks do to make the justice system fair for everyone, to better the lives of their clients and their families and, to prevent recidivism –arguably the biggest factor capable of reducing prison overcrowding — is well worth the investment.
3. By the same token it makes sense to break off $100 million to disperse to social justice groups like the Alabama Post-Conviction Relief Project, Alabama Arise, Project Hope, the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Southern Center for Human Rights, the Ordinary People Society, Alabama Appleseed, etcetera, etcetera. Unlike Governor Bentley, Speaker Hubbard, and many other Alabama lawmakers primed to mortgage away the future of generations of Alabamians (with this cockamamie prison construction plan), these civic-minded organizations are committed to efforts to keep people out of jails and prisons — not in them.
4. Invest $100 million to create Drug Courts, Veteran Treatment Courts, and Mental Health Courts, as well as to develop other proven diversionary programs designed to divert low-level non-violent offenders out of the criminal justice system (steering them clear of incarceration . . .).
5. Spend $100 million on public and private schools in Alabama. Seriously investing in the future of Alabama’s children would go an immeasurably long way towards stopping the school-to-prison pipeline.
6. Repeat number 5. (Yeah, it’s that important).
7. Use $100 million dollars to combat systemic poverty in Alabama. It is axiomatic that crime and incarceration rates fall the more a state does to lift its citizens out of poverty. It’s the right thing to do.
8. For the same reason, Alabama should spend $100 million on economic development, particularly in the poorest urban and rural areas of the state. Jobs that pay livable wages and provide families with economic security are, similar to a child’s access to a quality education, among the most important things a state government can provide its citizens to breed future captains of industry, leaders, and all variety of role models — and not just more convicts and more inmates.
About the Author: Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.