BEING TOUGH AND CHEAP ON
CRIME JUST PLAIN STUPID

When it comes to crime, there are two Alabamas.

 
One is tough, with three-strike and other rigid mandatory sentencing laws that have the state at the top for locking up criminals.

The other is cheap, spending less than half the national average on prisons and as little as one-third of what some of its Southern neighbors spend, while doing little to quell the rising prison rolls.

These two Alabamas go together about as well as Chief Justice Roy Moore and the American Civil Liberties Union.

A result of the state's split personalities is that our prison system is in crisis. Prisons are dangerously overcrowded and precariously understaffed. The 28,000 inmates in state prisons are about twice as many as the prisons were built to house. Meanwhile, the number of prison guards is less than half what's recommended.

The state's lone prison for women, Tutwiler, has nearly three times as many prisoners as it should, leading a federal judge to rule conditions are so unsafe and inhumane that they are unconstitutional.

The state's mismatched priorities are well-illustrated by stories in last week's Birmingham News.

Monday's newspaper profiled Gov. Bob Riley's new head of state prisons, Donal Campbell. He had been commissioner of the Tennessee prison system, whose budget is twice as high as Alabama's but has 10,000 fewer inmates. Campbell makes no bones about the fact that Alabama will have to put more money into prisons and reduce the prison population.

Neither will be easy, because of the state's two minds. Last Sunday's paper told the story of a Moulton high school student who was sentenced to 26 years in prison for selling $350 worth of marijuana to an undercover officer. The 18-year-old, first-time offender isn't exactly the drug kingpin the state's get-tough-on-drugs laws were designed to snare, but he's not an anomaly; many of the state prisoners are nonviolent drug offenders.

The state's lock-them-up-and-throw-away-the-key mentality hurts the counties, too. Monday's paper carried a story about the St. Clair County jail in Pell City, which houses 107 inmates though it was built for only 68. About one-third of those are prisoners the state was supposed to pick up but didn't because prisons had no room for them. Most county jails are in similar shape, even though a court agreement says the state must pick up its prisoners in a timely manner and even though a judge found the state in contempt of court for not doing so.

Alabama's cheap-on-crime stance also means effective programs such as work release, community corrections and drug- and mental-health treatment programs go underfunded. Rather than facing many years sitting behind bars at a great cost to taxpayers, the Moulton 18-year-old could better pay his debt to society through some form of community work. That would leave more space in prisons for violent criminals.

A hope is that Riley and Campbell are, indeed, committed to putting more resources into the corrections system and can convince the Legislature to do so. Another is the Alabama Sentencing Commission, which is looking into the state's sentencing guidelines and alternatives to incarceration. It will make its recommendations to the Legislature before lawmakers convene next month.

Its work could bring some sanity to the two Alabamas. It's certainly needed.

In trying to be both tough and cheap, the state has managed only to be stupid.


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