Now is the time for comprehensive reform of Alabama's criminal justice system

As Alabamians, it is our responsibility to confront and address problems that plague our state and limit our ability to grow and progress economically and otherwise. To do that, we must look at those problems squarely and be honest with ourselves about where our current and past practices have left us.

The state of overcrowding in our prisons and jails, and the operation of the criminal justice system that feeds them, has finally gripped the attention of people across our state. However, while public discourse is good, the ongoing discussions have magnified the flaws in our current system and revealed a dire need for reform. Raw data and unbiased research indisputably shows that the structure of our criminal justice system has, in fact, severely compromised our fight on crime at a fundamental level.

AL.COM OPINION

  • About the writer
    Republican Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate.

We have learned, with expert assistance and analysis by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, that our system lets more than a third of all individuals finish their prison sentences and reenter society without any kind of supervision. That includes large numbers of short-term inmates who are sentenced for drug or property crimes and more likely to reoffend.

Those serving long-term sentences are serving longer and longer under the guise of a harsh punishment, due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. However, the truth is that we are merely prolonging their inevitable return to society while failing altogether to take steps to decrease their threat to society upon reentry. In fact, statistics show that sentences without supervised release very often result in an increased risk of reoffending.

Our correctional system is unsustainably crowded, and currently holds twice as many people as it is built to house.

Between 2003 and 2013, the population in state-run prisons alone climbed 9 percent. When alternative placements like community corrections are taken into account, the population increase is even higher at 19 percent over that same time span. Corrections spending also increased 49 percent during this ten-year period, from $309 million to $460 million. The numbers in the last decade show how unaffordable that growth has become.

That growing cost may seem overwhelming, but if we fail to tackle the challenge the cost will grow dramatically. Further, the price of 12,000 new prison beds -- enough to bring our system into line with current demands on beds -- would cost $840 million to construct, and would cost $186 million annually just to operate.

Opting to buy our state out of overcrowding, however, would only be a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue, and failure to address the root of the problem will only increase future costs.

All of these factors combine to make restructuring essential in our system, to place equal emphasis on reentry and supervision that we place on prison. There are many upsides to tackling this situation now. When Alabama balances the need for sentences to include stays of confinement as well as mandatory supervision, we can manage the demand for beds and better plan the use of our own resources. Additionally, we can fill in gaps in the supervised treatment network and begin to reverse the declining parole release rate.

These facts present a blunt reality and, now that it has caught our attention, I cannot overstate the urgency of achieving comprehensive reform for Alabama's criminal justice system.

We must move forward with the ultimate objective to develop concrete, effective change that will preserve public safety and support law enforcement operations in our state. This important effort demands two things: collaboration and thoughtful attention. There is no place for political rhetoric in these discussions and in this work. It is imperative that we remain committed to finding a resolution that will balance efficient use of our current resources with change that will necessarily allow for effective operations, all the while preserving the safety of Alabama citizens now and in the future. 

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