On criminal-justice reform, Alabama should look to Texas

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Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley recently announced a new initiative aimed at addressing the state’s overcrowding problem, with 23,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 13,000. The “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative” would consolidate the states 14 prisons into four megaprisons, costing taxpayers about $800 million. Amazingly, Bentley argues this is the most cost-effective way to handle Alabama’s disastrous criminal justice system.

Instead of throwing money at the behemoth of bureaucracy that the prison complex has become, Alabama should consider an alternative model for reform pioneered by Texas.

In 2007, Texas legislators coalesced around a rare bipartisan effort to slim the country’s most bloated incarceration population. The war on drugs and tough-on-crime politics skyrocketed the state’s incarcerated population from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010. The Legislature in Austin was faced with two options—a $523 million prison construction plan or an approach focused on shrinking the amount of people they send to prison (i.e., the root of the problem). Obviously, the tough-on-crime stance so popular in deeply red states hadn’t stemmed the crime wave in any meaningful sense, so Texas House leaders opted for an alternative strategy.

Instead of placing first-time, nonviolent drug offenders in prison—making them more likely to adapt to the hardened prison culture and reoffend once out on release—Texas expanded drug courts that allowed users to forego prison if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing and treatment. The new approach also eschewed the common practice of severe sentencing punishments for technical violations of probation or parole. Instead, Texas’s reforms used graduated sanctions (i.e., increasingly strict punishments for parole or probation violations, as opposed to instant re-incarceration) and rehabilitation programs for drug users and the mentally ill.

Texas legislators wanted to send fewer people to prison. After all, housing prisoners is a massive taxpayer burden, with annual cost of $26,000 for just one prisoner. Americans foot an annual bill of roughly $85 billion for corrections.

Texans’ embrace of a new approach to criminal justice emphasizes that nonviolent and first-time offenders are being diverted from incarceration. A recent study from the Brennan Center for Justice showed that some 39 percent of incarcerated persons are behind bars with no public-safety rationale. The situation in Alabama is similar. In FY 2015, assault, murder, homicide and manslaughter combined to account for only 6 percent of the new admissions to the Alabama Department of Corrections, while possession of a controlled substance was the top conviction of inmates.

A relic of the drug war and “zero tolerance” crime campaigns of the 80s and 90s, more people were admitted to state and federal prisons for drug crimes than violent crimes every year from 1993 to 2009. The financial and human consequences of a prison and jail system teeming with bodies prompted Texas to make comprehensive changes, and it caught on like wildfire throughout the country.

“Utah, Alabama and Nebraska have all passed comprehensive sentencing and corrections reforms; West Virginia took steps to reduce incarceration of juveniles in their state for misdemeanor or status offenses, and Alaska began major work on a second wave of reforms,” according to Texas state Rep. Jerry Madden, R-Plano. Of course, the incentives lie in the gains Texas made as the progenitor of innovative reform. Since taking on its new criminal-justice strategy, Texas has saved taxpayers over $3 billion and crime rates have plummeted to a 49-year low. Moreover, recidivism is dropping and the state has been able to close three prisons.

Apparently, Alabama’s political leaders haven’t gotten the message. The prison initiative would cost an initial $800 million through bond issuances, but by the time the bond accrues interest, the cost could swell to $1.5 billion.

The news of the initiative comes amid a time of crisis in the Alabama criminal-justice system, with prison riotsmurders and sexual assault receiving an alarming amount of attention in recent years.

Gov. Bentley admits that this plan would likely alleviate only part of the problem, and that they ought to look at reform in a “holistic way.” Indeed, in 2015, the Alabama Legislature enacted S.B. 67, which prioritized prison capacity for violent offenders, but the mega-prison initiative sends a message that Alabama does not want to be a leader in criminal-justice reform and desperately needed fiscal responsibility.

Instead, an “if you build it, they will come” mantra seems to emanate from the mega-prison plan. If Alabama wants to liberate itself from the heaping mess of an incarceration system inside its borders, it ought to stop wasting money and building prisons, and begin rethinking how and why it locks so many people up in the first place.


Image by Georgios Tsichlis

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