Legislature can help reform criminal justice system
To understand why Alabama's prisons are in crisis, you really need to know only two things:
One, Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the nation; that is, we send more people to prison per capita than nearly every other state.
And two, we spend less on prisons than every state; less than half the national average per inmate, in fact.
Put the two together and you have a recipe for calamity. A state that wants to be both tough and cheap on crime must be especially smart with its money or risk disaster, and Alabama has been anything but smart. Perhaps only by luck has Alabama, with its dangerously overcrowded and understaffed prisons, been spared a bloody prison uprising or breakout.
The state, however, can't continue to rely on luck to keep inmates, prison workers and the public at large safe. Plus, federal and state courts are serious in their demands that the state relieve its overcrowded prison conditions.
Alabama has to do something. And since money will always be an issue, state leaders must look for creative and effective ways to stem prison crowding.
Fortunately, the groundwork for needed change already has been laid smart sentencing reform proposals. The Legislature this week can give those reforms the push they need.
Topping the House of Representatives' agenda today is a three-bill package of reforms proposed by the Alabama Sentencing Commission that should improve the way the state sentences criminals. The bills would make it easier to punish those who commit nonviolent property crimes without having to send them to prison, which would free up prison space for more dangerous criminals. Use of alternatives to incarceration such as community work programs would be expanded.
But this is no soft-on-crime legislation. The bills would also move the state closer to real truth-in-sentencing in which victims of crime can feel confident the people who hurt them will serve their full sentences. Currently, the time convicts spend behind bars is a joke, compared with the lengths of their sentences. For example, someone sentenced to 10 years in prison could walk free with parole and time off for good behavior in three years.
Under the proposed legislation, the state over a three-year period would abolish parole and good time off, and convicts would serve their entire sentences. Sentences handed down would also be more uniform, rather than helter-skelter depending on the judge or county.
Alabamians also shouldn't mistake the use of more alternatives to prison time for nonviolent offenders as a cakewalk for them. Judges will be better able to sentence those who qualify directly to community-run punishment programs, and these programs will be set up to hold the offenders accountable for their crime, including making them pay restitution to their victims.
The sentencing reforms before the House are more than just ideas. They are much-needed changes that have been well-studied and should help reform our entire criminal justice system. They would also allow the state to be something it has never been before smart on crime.