Efforts to divert drug addicts and other nonviolent criminals away from state prisons are gaining momentum months before Alabama's 2006 legislative session.
On Monday, the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance, which advocates the legalization of medical marijuana and policy changes in the way America deals with drug addicts, released "Alabama Prison Crisis: A Justice Strategies Policy Report."(pdf)
"Substance abuse is driving the prison crisis," said Kevin Pranis, an analyst with Justice Strategies, the New York-based nonprofit group commissioned to do the report.
The Drug Policy Alliance and the Sentencing Commission support voluntary sentencing guidelines for Alabama's judges and an expansion of community-based rehabilitation programs. The Justice Strategies report echoes some of the prison reform legislation now being vetted by Gov. Bob Riley and others.
"You look at the two sides and what they identify," said Rep. Locy Baker, D-Abbeville, on Monday as he joined a representative from the Drug Policy Alliance and others at a news conference announcing the report.
The Riley Administration has made reducing Alabama's prison population, now at twice the system's design capacity, a high priority.
Last week, Riley received recommendations from his 11-member Task Force on Prison Crowding. The committee has asked for at least nine bills in the next legislative session, including eight measures backed by the Alabama Sentencing Commission.
The task force recommendations include a sentencing reform bill that has failed twice in the Legislature, passing the House both times only to get bogged down in the Senate. The bill calls for voluntary sentencing standards for 26 felonies. Historically, the list of felonies covers 87 percent of convictions in Alabama
Riley has given preliminary support to the task force's recommendations and plans to put a copy of them in the hands of all 140 legislators. The Drug Policy Alliance likewise is distributing its report to the governor and Alabama lawmakers.
Alabama led the nation in reducing its prison population last year thanks to an accelerated parole program for nonviolent offenders. Now that the parole plan has run its course, the state prison population is on the rise again.
"It was only a stopgap measure," said Pranis, noting that more changes are needed to get prison growth under control.
Legislation to divert drug addicts away from state prisons and into community programs also has the support of the New Bottom Line Campaign, a coalition that supports sentencing reform.
"Addiction is a disease," said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan, co-director of the campaign. "It's not a crime."
Glasgow founded The Ordinary People Society, or TOPS, a religious-based nonprofit group that works with convicts and at-risk kids.
The Rev. Kobi Little of Selma, campaign co-director, decried the racial disparity of Alabama's prison population. Little cited figures in the Drug Policy Alliance report indicating that although blacks make up 26 percent of Alabama's residents, they constitute 60 percent of the state's inmate population.
"We're not substantively dealing with (drug addiction) as a public health problem," he said. Little, a resident of Selma, is the founder of the Institute for Theology and Social Justice