Alabama's prison system is broken. Unless the Legislature musters the political will to fix it, the state could soon face a major crisis.
The form that crisis will take is anybody's guess. It could be a major riot that results in the deaths of inmates and Corrections officers. It could be another major release of inmates ordered by a federal judge. It could be an increase in escapes that place the public at risk. It could be the continued loss of Corrections officers and inability to recruit and train their replacements fast enough to keep the system viable.
Whatever form it takes, the likelihood of a crisis of some sort grows each year that the Legislature does not face reality.
That reality includes the fact that Alabama for years has squeezed far more prisoners into facilities than they were designed to hold. As of November, there were almost twice as many inmates in fa cilities than they were originally designed to contain.
Even the state's maximum security prisons, where the most dangerous prisoners are likely to be housed, are at about 175 percent of design capacity.
In addition, the number of state prisoners remaining in county jails for longer than 30 days after they are supposed to be moved to the prison system violates a standing court order, and it is likely a judge will soon order some relief for the overcrowded jails.
Those who think the Corrections Department can continue to squeeze ever-growing numbers of prisoners into the system without inviting disaster probably don't understand that many of the easy reforms already have been made.
The Corrections Department already has one of the lowest per-prisoner costs in the nation at $12,030 per year. It already generates millions of dollars of its annual operating costs from prison industries. It already has boot camps for appropriate inmates. It already has work release centers. The state already has sped up the parole process, even to the point of naming a second parole board.
But there are solutions, even solutions that will not require spending hundred of millions of dollars to build new prisons and hundred of millions more each year to operate them.
A task force appointed by Gov. Bob Riley has recommended a range of reforms that include:
# Sentencing guidelines for the state's judges that would reduce minimum sentence ranges for drug crimes by about 30 percent and for property crimes by about 20 percent. This reform measure, which would allow shorter sentences for nonviolent criminals, has been before the Legislature several times before. It has passed the House, but been bottled up in the dysfunctional Senate.
# The creation of three prerelease work centers where inmates could receive training to help them exist on the outside without returning to crime. This would include intensive drug counseling and vocational training.
# The creation of at least one Technical Violators' Center. Currently about 40 percent of parolees returned to prison have not committed new crimes, but only a "technical violation" such as failing to pay court-ordered restitution. This proposal would allow judges the option of sending technical violators for 60 to 90 days of treatment and counseling instead of using valuable prisons beds needed for more dangerous inmates.
# The expansion of community corrections programs. Twenty-five such programs already operate successfully to serve 34 counties, but the Legislature needs to provide the funding to expand them to serve every community in the state that can be persuaded to join in a cooperative venture.
These proposals make sense. Legislators should not allow election-year posturing keep them from adopting these reasonable and cost-effective measures to help address prison overcrowding.
The Advertiser is usually a very good paper with very good coverage of the issues. However, this editorial, much like the recommendations by the latest task force on prison overcrowding do not go nearly far enough in correcting the problem.
The solution is very simple.
Stop arresting and jailing people for using drugs.
Prison crisis solved.