Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley announced in his State of the State speech that in his remaining three years in office he would push for sweeping new programs to reform prisons, boost education and improve health care.
Good for him. Most of his proposals are long overdue, and if they reach fruition, could help improve Alabama for lots of people.
But his plan would have been much more impressive if he had announced it during his first few years in office, when he had more clout to actually get it adopted.
(See the governor's full strategic plan at: http://governor.alabama.gov/assets/2016/02/2015-2019-Strategic-Plan-2-1-2016-Final.pdf)
Like many a lame duck governor before him, Bentley is struggling to remain relevant during his final years in office by announcing broad proposals with lots of public appeal. But lame-duck governors have less influence to get programs adopted, and that influence diminishes the closer they get to the end of their final term in office.
That's especially true in Alabama, where sitting governors have limited powers. They can recommend budgets, for instance, but the Legislature can simply ignore those recommendations in actually building those budgets. Alabama governors also can veto legislation, but the Legislature needs just a simple majority to override that veto.
Still, Bentley deserves applause for trying. If he is successful in getting the majority of his plan approved, bravo for him.
There is a lot in Bentley's proposal that I like -- the two-year college scholarship program, teacher pay increases, the continued expansion of pre-kindergarten, and other issues. But let me focus today on one issue -- new prisons.
“By building a brand new female prison facility, the state of Alabama will permanently slam the door shut on Tutwiler Prison for Women,” Bentley told legislators.
I wanted to give him a standing ovation when I heard that.
Bentley actually proposed a bond issue to build four new facilities to replace existing prisons, including first and foremost the embarrassing Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
Tutwiler is under attack by federal officials, who have alleged prisoners faced wide-ranging abuses, and in civil lawsuits. The facility is simply inadequate, and if the state does not address improving it, the federal government eventually will order it closed on constitutional grounds.
Cynics would point out that Bentley's proposal for a bond issue means that the vast majority of the bills for the new prisons won't really come due until after Bentley leaves office. Since those bills will have to be paid out of the troubled General Fund budget, future governors and legislators will have to struggle to find the money to meet the debt service on the bond issue.
However, the bond issue makes sense -- at the very least for Tutwiler, and perhaps for three other new prisons.
Alabama's prison facilities hold almost twice the number of inmates that they are designed to hold. Overcrowding in many of them make the jobs of corrections officers and staff much more difficult.
But a caveat -- simply building new prisons does not address the central issues that have gotten Alabama's prison system in trouble. The Associated Press quoted Equal Justice initiative Director Bryan Stevenson as saying that problems of abuse, poor management and understaffing are still problems when they take place in a new prison. He's right.
In other words, it will take more than new facilities to keep the federal courts or the federal government from dictating new options for Alabama's correction system. But new prisons would help, and in the case of Tutwiler, I believe that a new facility is essential.
Ken Hare is a longtime editorial writer and editorial page editor who now writes a regular column for wsfa.com. Feedback appreciated at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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