by Katherine Robertson, Jay Neal and Jerry Madden
As leaders in the national conservative criminal justice movement, we have witnessed several states successfully implement more effective and efficient sentencing and corrections systems.
By adopting policies based on conservative principles — personal responsibility, fiscal discipline, and individual liberty — states including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas have enacted policies proven to both
enhance public safety and minimize the cost to taxpayers. What these states have found is that the cycle of crime can be broken by implementing and expanding approaches aimed at nonviolent offenders, specifically through increased use of drug courts, access to mental health facilities, and by removing barriers to employment for ex-offenders, among others.
Today, Alabama is home to the highest prison crowding rate in the country, with prisons at 187 percent capacity.
Alabama is poised to follow the path forged by other conservative states in taking a smarter approach to operating its criminal justice system. And we are ready to help.
Like most states, Alabama’s prison system is one of the largest and fastest growing parts of the state budget. Yet, this system is not reducing re-offending commensurate with this growth in spending. Fortunately, momentum for change is building around the country and conservatives in other states have taken the lead in promoting sensible policies.
Today, Alabama is home to the highest prison crowding rate in the country, with prisons at 187 percent capacity. Without true reform, Alabama risks falling prey to federal court intervention, similar to California, where unelected judges order the release of thousands of prisoners from state lockups. These edicts ordering the haphazard release of inmates risk turning out dangerous offenders who pose a significant safety risk to their communities. But this does not have to be the story for Alabama; there is an alternative.
For example, Georgia, led by a conservative governor who is a former prosecutor, passed major adult and juvenile policy changes without a single opposition vote in the Legislature.
The consensus measure, developed with input from all stakeholders, is projected to improve public safety outcomes and reduce the prison population by prioritizing prison space for violent and dangerous offenders while strengthening probation and parole supervision and diverting more low-level drug offenders to drug courts. North Carolina developed and passed legislation during a period in which the North Carolina Legislature totally changed from one party to the other.
The legislation introduced significant changes in the state’s probation system without new funds, yet this and other changes have led to an almost 12 percent reduction in prison population. Texas, instead of building more prisons in 2007, implemented improvements to probation, parole, specialty courts, and in-prison treatment programs which have avoided more than $3 billion in prison costs. Most importantly, Texas’ crime rate is at its lowest since 1968.
Alabama’s leaders are at a crossroads, presented with the opportunity to make real positive change to their criminal justice system or continue on the current path. The high cost, low return system currently in operation can only last for so long. Leaders must act to improve and expand alternatives to incarceration for low-risk and nonviolent offenders to ensure that costly prison space is focused on those who pose a long-term threat to our public safety, not those we are simply mad at.
As Alabama looks to the future of its criminal justice system, it can turn to many existing resources. Recently, the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center joined with Alabama U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance to host a Prison Reentry Summit at Samford University. Now, Right on Crime, an initiative for conservative criminal justice reforms anchored by a statement of principles signed by luminaries such as Jeb Bush, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bennett, J.C. Watts, and Ed Meese, is joining with Alabama’s conservative think tank, the Birmingham-based Alabama Policy Institute, to help leaders address this important issue.
Alabama still has time to change its course. State leaders can choose to enact polices that have been proven to protect public safety while lowering the cost to taxpayers.
Katherine Robertson serves as senior policy analyst for the Alabama Policy Institute and is a former U.S. Justice Department employee; Jay Neal is a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, serves on the Georgia Criminal Justice Reform Council, and authored legislation that created the council; and Jerry Madden is a former chairman of the Correction Committee of the Texas House of Representatives and author of many Texas’ reforms.