Why Alabama Cannot Wait on Prison Reform

By Sen. Cam Ward

Prisons are an issue that would never rank high on any list of priorities for the people of Alabama and understandably so.  With unemployment hovering near 7 percent and many schools in need of repair, people ask me why prison reform should be a major subject at this time.  The answer is simple – because our failure to maintain a good corrections system is going to push over a fiscal cliff that we may never recover from.

For years as our corrections system became more crowded the political leadership in Montgomery turned their eyes to issues more palatable to the voters during election time.  The general feeling for decades has been "let's wait and deal with that when we have more money."

As we waited our system grew to 192 percent capacity and despite this incarceration rate our state has the 8th highest violent crime rate in the country. Both of these statistics point to a failing system of corrections.

In addition to allowing for a broken system to continue down a path of inefficiency we have also created a fiscal nightmare of the likes our state has never seen before. While we spend $460 million a year on prisons, which represents about one-third of our General Fund Budget, it has not been a factor in what should be our top priority: public safety.

Some have argued that we should now build enough new prisons to reduce this overpopulation.  In order to "build our way" to a capacity of 137 percent we need to spend roughly $600 million MORE on corrections. That is over $1 billion in tax dollars out of a $1.8 billion budget just on prisons. That is fiscally irresponsible.

We have been waiting for years for some magic solution to appear in regards to our prison system. Now an unfortunate solution is staring us in the face: a federal takeover of our state corrections system. If a federal court was to place our system into receivership it would cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and result in the mass release of inmates. This would be a disaster for the state's public safety and would make our crime rate increase dramatically while the revenue to deal with it decreases.

Why can't Alabama wait to deal with prison reform? Because waiting is what got us into this problem to begin with and the longer we wait the harder it is going to be to solve.

State Senator Cam Ward is an attorney who specializes in economic development and has always been dedicated to whatever cause he committed himself to.

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