Alabamians will soon get a look at proposals to deal with the state’s dysfunctional prison system, but a member of the panel formulating a plan to put before the state Legislature gave us a hint Tuesday.
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said to expect proposals dealing with prison oversight as well as changes to the habitual offender act and making pretrial diversion programs more available.
The good news is he didn’t come out and say the state is simply going to build more prisons. Without plans to deal with one of the largest per capita prison populations in the world, simply building more prisons is merely pushing the problem down the road, until one day the new prisons are just as overcrowded, understaffed and dangerous as the current ones.
“You will see a heavy emphasis on how we do diversion programs. It shouldn’t be a pay-to-play system,” Ward said, citing his own experience on the wrong side of the law.
Ward went through a pretrial diversion program after a drunken driving arrest, which cost him about $2,000, he said, according to The Associated Press.
“I was lucky because I had the means to do so, but there are a lot of people who couldn’t. And that’s not right,” Ward said.
Realizing that Alabama’s criminal justice system is often stacked against the poor, and subjects them to harsher punishments simply because they are poor, is a step in the right direction.
There is a catch: All of these proposals cost money, although not as much money as building prisons — and without the political benefit that lawmakers can get from bringing prison jobs home to their district.
“All these things are expensive. And all these things have to be paid for,” Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, noted. “I think for us to look at here’s what we need to do and not look at here’s how we’re going to fund it, we’ve got to be careful, it could turn into an academic exercise that doesn’t really yield any practical results.”
And it is treating criminal justice reform as largely an academic exercise in the past that has gotten the state where it is today — with a prison system on the verge of federal takeover.
Hopefully this means the state is moving in the right direction, which is more than can be said of two of our neighbors. The past few weeks have seen protests in Mississippi as the inadequacies of that state’s prison system have come to light.
And a recent report by Tennessee’s comptroller found many of the same problems with violence, sexual assault and poor medical care — in both private and state-run Tennessee prisons — that have gotten Alabama’s prisons in trouble.
On Tuesday, Memphis rapper Yo Gotti and musician Jay Z filed suit against the state of Mississippi on behalf of 29 prisoners, alleging “unconstitutional and inhumane treatment” of prisoners.
“Unconstitutional” and “inhumane” are terms that have also been used to describe Alabama prisons.
With luck and some political will, Alabama lawmakers can address these issues. For once, instead of bringing up the rear, perhaps Alabama can be a model of reform for its neighbors.