When the Legislature convenes in March, one of the most pressing issues it will face is reforming the state’s correctional system.
Alabama has the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. Built to house 13,000 inmates, the state’s prison facilities today hold about 25,000.
The prisons are understaffed and prisoners have been mistreated. When offenders are placed on probation in lieu of prison or released from prison on parole, there are far too few officers to supervise their re-entry into the community. The average officer has a caseload of 192 people, far too many for meaningful supervision. About 3,000 offenders are released from prison each year without any supervision at all.
These conditions create a “revolving door,” with too many returning to prison: 44 percent of the inmates in state custody have served at least one previous prison sentence in Alabama.
Sentencing practices also are part of the problem. Alabama has a higher proportion of its population in prison than all but three other states.
There is some urgency to resolve these issues. The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution prohibits cruel and unusual punishment and the state is facing lawsuits from prisoners and has been investigated by the Department of Justice. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ordered California to reduce its prison population to end overcrowding.
There is very little money available to bring about reforms. Funding for the Alabama Department of Corrections exceeds $470 million a year, which is the second largest item in the state’s General Fund budget. That budget is facing a shortfall of $250 million for the coming year, with even larger obligations due in following years.
A Prison Reform Task Force is working on solutions and is assisted by experts from the Council of State Governments.
The most obvious option is to build more prisons, but this would be very expensive in terms of both capital costs and the staffing required. Instead the task force has focused on developing better risk assessments to guide the placement of offenders; increasing the resources for community-based supervision and treatment; requiring effective supervision for all those released from prison; and enacting sentencing reforms to divert nonviolent offenders, where appropriate, from prison into effective community programs.
These types of investments have proven to be most cost-effective in other states, protecting public safety while reducing the rate of return to prison.