This past week, I had the privilege of serving on a panel discussing Alabama’s prison woes at the Faulkner Law Review’s Annual Symposium in Montgomery. The discussion highlighted capacity issues within the prison system, length of sentences, problems with Alabama’s habitual offender law, health care and mental health issues.

While the panelists engaged in a robust discussion of the critical issues surrounding Alabama’s prisons, there was little disagreement that the state has a problem in need of an immediate solution.

The facts seem to back that conclusion. According to the latest report from the Alabama Department of Corrections, Alabama’s prison system currently holds almost 190 percent of its designed capacity. Combined with prison-staffing issues, Alabama’s prison problems are clear.

Unfortunately, the most difficult problem to solve may be the politics of prison reform.

The immediate solutions to Alabama’s prison problems are relatively limited: Spend money to improve prison conditions and expand capacity, reduce the number of inmates in prison or choose some combination of both.

With cash-strapped state budgets, spending more money on prisons means finding more revenue. The last thing any Alabama politician wants to do is raise taxes or cut state programs to pay for better inmate conditions. In that respect, spending more money on prisons seems like a political non-starter.

The second option is to reduce the current inmate population quickly. That conversation involves discussions about parole, sentencing modifications and alternatives to incarceration. Even if the discussion is limited to non-violent offenders, political advocates of the changes will likely find themselves the targets of allegations that they are “soft on crime.”

A combination of the two approaches does not seem to provide a much more palatable result.

What would happen if Alabama politicians were required to make similar tough decisions by a federal judicial decree resulting from a lawsuit initiated by the likes of the Southern Poverty Law Center or even the Department of Justice under Eric Holder’s guidance?

Under that scenario, Alabama’s politicians would be able to blame an “activist judge,” a “liberal special interest group,” or even “President Obama’s Justice Department” for forcing them to make any politically unpopular reforms. For many politicians in Alabama, that situation is a much more favorable political dynamic.

Other politicians like state Sen. Cam Ward have repeatedly called on their colleagues to enact solutions before a lawsuit requires state action. Ward raises an alternative outcome where voters fault politicians for letting a federal judge dictate state policy.

Either way, the politics of prison reform are just as important as the facts in developing actual solutions to Alabama’s prison challenges. Unless we are willing to give state legislators and the Governor a political pass for making the tough policy decisions now, we may be forced to wait until they are operating under the confines of a federal judicial mandate to see the problems addressed.

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