Prison reform

May 6, 2015; Anniston Star (Anniston, AL)


Stephen Stetson is a policy analyst for Arise Citizens’ Policy Project, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of 150 congregations and organizations promoting public policies to improve the lives of low-income Alabamians. In this op-ed, he ruminates on the prospects of the legislation filed by Alabama’s new Prison Reform Task Force.

Alabama SB 67 has passed the Senate and is moving to the house for debate. In the meantime, in cleaning off his desk, Stetson found a 25-year-old report advocating the reform of Alabama’s overcrowded prison system. He says, “Sadly, many of its recommendations are still applicable today.”

The 1990 report by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama (PARCA) was titled “Deciding the Future Direction of Criminal Punishment in Alabama.” Among other things, it warned, “Rapid growth in the number of prison inmates was a major cause of the state’s General Fund problem throughout the 1980s, and the inmate population continues to rise today.” This, of course, is not where we would prefer our tax dollars to be spent, but a vicious cycle that includes the overuse of prisons is weakening our communities and making them more dangerous.

Steston writes, “We refused to listen. During the 1980s, state appropriations to the Department of Corrections doubled from eight percent of the General Fund to 16 percent. Those numbers seem downright quaint today, considering that corrections spending now consumes nearly a quarter of the General Fund.”

Even if the current legislation is not “watered down, it only would reduce the state’s prison population—now about 25,000—by 4,500 inmates over the next five years,” Stetson points out. “The proposed prison reforms are a good first step, but they are only that: a first step. Legislators must find the fortitude to raise the revenue to invest in mental health care and drug courts, strengthen community corrections, hire more probation and parole officers, and pursue other proven techniques.”

It is time for all nonprofits to pay attention to prisons and their role in making our communities less safe and vibrant.—Ruth McCambridge