OUR VIEW: Confront Prison Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser Editorial

A lot of statistics crop up in discussions of Alabama’s prison system, such as the oft-cited reality that the system has almost twice as many inmates as its facilities were built to hold. That’s troubling enough, but there are some new numbers that add further perspective that should be useful as the state proceeds under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

That initiative, part of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice, has helped several other states develop effective reforms in their prison systems. It’s a smart move for Alabama to draw on the expertise and experience JRI offers.

As the state task force delves into the issues, we hope it will bear in mind a critical fact and be open to two important questions that fact raises.

Here’s the fact: Alabama has a higher rate of incarceration than any country on the planet. If Alabama were a nation, its incarceration rate of 861 persons per 100,000 population would rank well ahead of the United States rate of 716 and miles ahead of the country in second place — Cuba, with 510 persons incarcerated per 100,000 residents.

Here are the questions: Why is our rate so high? And, what do we get for it?

Our state’s conservative politics can’t be the only answer to the first question. Other states that no one would confuse with bastions of liberalism have markedly lower incarceration rates — Nebraska at 443, North Dakota at 370, Utah at 458, New Hampshire at 368, Kansas at 631, for example.

Maybe it’s our general attitude toward prisons, a viewpoint geared more toward retribution than — despite the official name of the state’s prison department — corrections.

As for the second question, what we get is largely undesirable. We get a serious drain on an already strapped budget. We get many persons who come back into society poorly equipped to live successfully within its boundaries. Few people die in prison; most will return to society at some point.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the state task force, has called the prison problem the biggest challenge Alabama has ever faced. He may well be right.

Ward has been one of only a handful of responsible voices in the Legislature on this issue. We hope more of his colleagues will begin paying serious attention to the situation, moving away from the easy non-answers employed for so long and toward a candid confrontation of the problems that decades of neglect and unsound policies have only made worse.

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