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Opinion | Building new prisons is not the answer

Alabama should be building better schools, not better prisons. It’s as simple as that. And the truth is if we had done that from the beginning we probably wouldn’t have the overcrowded prisons we have today.

It’s a statistical fact that if a child can’t read at a third-grade level by the time they graduate the third grade then they are far more likely to end up in prison. And here’s another statistical fact: A non-violent offender who completes some sort of education training (like a trade such as carpentry or welding) while they are in prison has only a 20 percent chance of going back to prison while an offender who does not get that training has an 80 percent chance of going back to prison.

Education is clearly the key. Education keeps people from going to prison in the first place, and it helps those who are in prison avoid going back by turning them into productive members of society.

The answer is obvious. And, yet, state leaders continue to obsess over this plan to spend a billion dollars of taxpayer money building new “superprisons.”

Don’t get me wrong. We absolutely should make sure we have facilities that are safe for our correctional officers. And one way we can make prisons safer for both our officers and the inmates is to hire more correctional officers so that they can more safely patrol the prisons and prevent the violence that we currently are seeing.

There are other commonsense things we should be doing to make our prisons safer, too. For example, we should separate violent offenders from non-violent offenders to keep those prisons safer while also preventing non-violent offenders from become more dangerous criminals when they get out.

But above all we need to focus on reducing crime and preventing people from going to jail in the first place. Reducing crime is the best way to reduce the prison population, and that starts by investing more in education.

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Another reason why state leaders are wrong to pursue this billion dollar prison plan is because it will end up costing the taxpayers far more than the price tag state leaders are currently quoting.

That’s because the plan is to lease these prisons, and that means the taxpayers will still be paying for them long after the costs of building them has been covered.

And what happens if the economy turns negative again and the state doesn’t have the revenue to make the lease payments? Are these inmates going to be released back into the general population because the state can’t afford the rent payments anymore?

State leaders continue to pursue this prison plan for two reasons. First, it puts money back into the pockets of the donors who contributed to their political campaigns. Second, it gives state leaders an out. Now they can say, “we did something” without actually having to do the hard work of solving the problem.

But the old saying still holds true today: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

If all we do is build new prisons without addressing the reasons why people go to those prisons in the first place, then eventually we will outgrow these new prisons, too. Then it will be our children and grandchildren having to fight this battle. And we did not elect our state leaders so that they can kick the can down the road!

The best solution to our overcrowded prisons is to keep people out of them in the first place and to help those who have a chance at redemption to turn their lives around.

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And to do that, we have to focus on education. We have to educate the non-violent offenders so that they can turn their lives around and become productive members of society. We know this works because the numbers don’t lie. Those who get educated rarely go back to prison, while those who don’t almost always end up back in jail.

To prevent overcrowding in the future, we have to invest in our children TODAY! I would rather my tax dollars pay for their education today than pay for their imprisonment for the next 20 to 30 years.

We already know what the best solution is. We don’t need to form another “study committee.” We just need to invest the taxpayers’ money wisely. And building new prisons is not a wise investment. It’s just kicking the can down the road until those new prisons are, themselves, overcrowded.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

Craig Ford is the owner of Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

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