Saturday, April 11, 2015

Hank Sanders: Senate Sketches #1452 I pray that we have real prison reform in Alabama

  A half loaf is better than no loaf. This is an old saying that contains much wisdom. However, the challenge is knowing when the choice is truly between a half loaf and no loaf. The choice is even more difficult when it’s a quarter loaf or a fifth of a loaf or sometimes just a few slices. The loaf/slices choice is one I struggled with in the Alabama Senate last week.

  The issue was prison reform. Republicans appointed a nearly 30 member Alabama Prison Reform Task Force. Only two members were African American in spite of race being a central issue. The Task force developed a series of recommendations, but the bill was filed before the Task Force made its recommendation. Suffice it to say that the bill is way, way less than a half loaf.

  Last week we struggled with the bill in the Alabama Senate. It did not even address all the recommendations of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force. That made it less than half of a half loaf. I do not know the percentage because some recommendations may have ten times the impact of others. Any way we slice it, there is only a bit of a loaf.

  Let’s look at the problems. Alabama has one of the three or four highest conviction/incarceration rates in the world. That’s a fundamental problem because we continue to devise ways to convict and incarcerate more people. Unless this problem is substantially addressed, everything else amounts to a few slices when a whole loaf is desperately needed.

  A second problem is excessive overcrowding. Alabama has prison space for roughly 13,000 human beings. However, we have nearly 26,000 prisoners in spaces that will constitutionally only hold half that number. Alabama’s prisons are the most overcrowded in the entire United States of America. If the prison population is not reduced by half, we are just fiddling with a few slices when a whole loaf is needed.

  A third problem is inadequate funding. Alabama has one of the least funded general governments in America. It is $1.8 billion in a state of 4.5 million citizens. 21.43 percent of this anemic budget goes to prisons, euphemistically called corrections. (There appears to be little correction in our prisons for we have one of the highest recidivism rates in the world.) Medicaid takes up 37.2 percent of the budget. Prisons and Medicaid jointly take up nearly 60 percent of the General Fund Budget, leaving 40 percent for everything else excluding education. We need to reduce prison costs in a constitutional manner or provide more money. Anything less is just nibbling on slices when a whole loaf is needed.

  A fourth problem involves two lawsuits pending in federal court. An adverse ruling could place Alabama’s prisons under court supervision. If that happens, the cost of prisons would be much, much greater. That may be the only way real reform occurs. A whole correction loaf is required to prevent the courts from supervising Alabama’s prisons.

  The bill that passed the Alabama Senate last week failed to fully address even one of these four major problems. In fact, it marginally addresses only one problem while causing others to expand. Basically, the bill tries to do the following: stop as many convicted persons from returning to prison; stop some convicted persons from going to prison for extremely long sentences; put more people on parole and/or probation; and reduces the rate of incarceration for marijuana. The bill also provides more parole and probation staff. These changes are projected to reduce the prison population to 4,000 when 13,000 is needed. These changes will cost an estimated $35 million a year which we don’t have. There is a provision in the bill that makes the changes null and void if we don’t have the $3.5 million. We need a whole loaf that cannot be taken back, but we are providing slices that we may not keep.            

  The bill does nothing to reduce one of the highest conviction rates in the world. Either Alabama’s people are worse than people in other states and/or other parts of the world, or something is wrong with the system. I choose to believe that something is wrong with the system. Until we address the problem of excessive conviction, we are serving slices when whole loaves are needed.

  The bill’s sponsor says he wants to build more prisons, but I don’t think that is in this bill. As far as I can tell, we do not have money for additional prison construction. To provide for 2,000 additional beds would cost $402 million over five years. More beds are just another slice. I am not for more prisons, for we already place more people in prison than almost any place in the world. We need a whole loaf.

  No additional funding is provided. In fact, this bill requires more money, not less. These changes, if passed by the Alabama House of Representatives and signed by the governor, are highly unlikely to prevent federal court supervision of prisons. The best that can be said for this bill is that it provides a few slices when multiple loaves are needed. I voted for the slices because I am convinced that no loaves are forthcoming from this legislature. This is very, very sad.

EPILOGUE – It’s so hard to strongly support a little when a lot is required. Too often getting a little stops us from striving for the lot that is needed. I pray that our support of this little bit of prison reform will not be an excuse for failing to strive for what is actually needed.

  About the author: Hank Sanders represents Senate District 23 in the Alabama Legislature.

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