MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Alabama lawmakers and policy directors are working through the summer to determine how to solve the state’s prison crisis. The only thing anyone can agree on at this point: there’s no easy fix.
The U.S. Department of Justice ordered sweeping changes to the Alabama Department of Corrections after a lengthy investigation found the conditions in state prisons were so dangerous it was infringing on prisoners’ basic civil rights.
One of the most hotly debated topics to date involves building new prisons. That infrastructure comes with a steep price tag. According to recent proposals, three new prisons would cost around $900 million.
Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, says that funding will be spent regardless of whether the state builds new facilities.
“It’s a false narrative to say if Alabama didn’t build the three prisons they would save that money,” Wright stated. “There is $700 million in unmet capital improvements in the prison system now.”
Before lawmakers can tackle construction, they must determine the target size of Alabama’s prison population that the state can afford and implement reforms to reach that number. Simply building prisons won’t solve the overcrowding crisis.
“It is going to have to take many adjustments to laws in terms of sentencing practices, what constitutes a misdemeanor or felony, parole practices, evidence-based practices in probation,” Wright explained. “Alabama is trying to wrap its hands around an entire criminal justice system.”
It’s a tough task with little time to spare. If the state doesn’t make modest proposals to tackle the problems, DOJ will intervene.
“We must find something that is sustainable and predictable, something that protects public safety and provides a meaningful alternative to incarceration,” Wright said.
Funding for construction, prison programs and alternative sentencing will be a tall task. To make the needed changes, that level of funding must be sustainable for decades to come.
“Alabama has to have a short term solution and a sustainable solution so the legislature has certainty in funding,” stated Wright. “I don’t think it’s a good idea for the government not to know what the future holds in terms of an agency that costs the second most of the general fund.”
Governor Kay Ivey is expected to call lawmakers back for a special session on this topic in the coming months.