Steve Flowers is Alabama’s premier political journalist and commentator. He is also considered by many to be the preeminent authority on Alabama politics and Alabama political history.

May 21, 2015

Weekly Column This Week in Alabama Politics

The hallmark accomplishment of this year’s legislative session will be a comprehensive prison reform package. This legislation is the one long-term substantive issue tackled by the super majority Republican legislative body.

This comprehensive prison project has been in the works for a while. A lot of research and planning went into the plan. State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) has been the steward of the project. Sen. Ward chairs the Prison Reform Task Force, which formulated the plan. He is also Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and he shepherded the plan through the legislative process.

Something had to be done. Alabama is in a crisis situation when it comes to prison overcrowding. Alabama’s prisons are at 200% capacity. The current prisons are designed to house 12,500. We have over 25,000 prisoners. We have had serious problems already arise at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for women. Our other institutions are ticking time bombs.

We are destined to be taken over by the federal courts. Federal judges took receivership of California’s prisons at 140% capacity. What do you think they would do to us at 200% capacity? Hopefully, if we are taken to court, the jurists will see we have made a move toward rectifying the crisis. The price tag of paying for what the federal receivership would require would be staggering to the state.

You may ask what exactly does this prison reform plan do. You first have to build some more prisons. The plan calls for an additional 2,000 beds over the next five years. These new prisons will not by themselves resolve the problem. Additional program implementations will hopefully bring overcrowding down to about 140%, which may be an acceptable level to a federal court.

The plan’s changes and building proposals have an approximate $35 million price tag. The primary focus of the long-term plan is twofold. New sentencing guidelines are designed to reduce recidivism through mandated supervision. Most inmates are not supervised much less assisted in finding employment. Under this current situation the odds of the inmate returning to prison are very high. The package calls for hiring 123 additional parole and probation officers.

These measures are not expected to give immediate relief. Over the next five years projections are that the increase in new parole officers, coupled with new buildings to incarcerate hardened criminals will cost $35 to 43 million and the savings evolved from less recidivism would save the same amount. Therefore, at best, in a few years it will be a wash financially.

In the long run, it is a good plan. The plan’s parent, Senator Ward says, “Our problem is we’ve spent so long ignoring the problem, it’s so far gone it’s going to take four or five years to see any savings.” Thus, the big question is how do you come up with the $35 million initial money to pay for the plan.

Much like the myriad of financial problems facing the General Fund, the prison problem has evolved over decades of neglect by the legislature. The chickens have come home to roost on this super majority Republican watch.  They did not create the problem, they inherited it.

In a true Republican spirit they cut government spending drastically over the past four years. However, also in a true Republican theme, they have dwelt on right wing social issues that have actually exacerbated the financial situation. They have passed blatantly unconstitutional acts that any ninth grade civics student knows are federal issues.

The sad fact is that it costs money out of the General Fund to pay to defend this demagoguery. The legislature should simply pass resolutions saying they hate abortion, immigration and Obama Care. They could get the same political mileage with their political pandering but at least it would not cost the state anything other than the paper it is written on. The Resolution would have the same effect as their Act.

See you next week.