Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley recently announced a new initiative aimed at addressing the state’s overcrowding problem,with 23,000 prisoners in facilities designed for about 13,000. The “Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative” would consolidate the state’s fourteen prisons into four mega–prisons, costing taxpayers about $800 million. Amazingly, Bentley argues this is the most cost effective way to handle Alabama’s disastrous criminal justice system.
Instead of throwing money at the behemoth of bureaucracy that the prison complex has become, Alabama should consider an alternative model for reform pioneered by Texas.
In 2007, Texas legislators coalesced around a rare bipartisan effort to slim the country’s most bloated incarceration population. The war on drugs and tough on crime politics skyrocketed the state’s incarcerated population from about 50,000 in 1990 to a peak of 173,000 in 2010. The legislature in Austin was faced with two options—a $523 million prison construction plan or an approach focused on shrinking the amount of people they send to prison (i.e. the root of the problem). Obviously, the tough on crime stance so popular in deeply red states hadn’t stemmed the crime wave in any meaningful sense, so Texas House leaders opted for an alternative strategy.
Instead of placing first-time, nonviolent drug offenders in prison — making them more likely to adapt to the hardened prison culture and reoffend once out on release — Texas expanded drug courts that allowed users to forego prison if they agreed to comprehensive supervision, drug testing, and treatment. The new approach also eschewed the common practice of severe sentencing punishments for technical violations of probation or parole. Instead, Texas’s reforms used graduated sanctions (i.e. increasingly strict punishments for parole or probation violations as opposed to instant re-incarceration) and rehabilitation programs for drug users and the mentally ill.
Texas legislators wanted to send fewer people to prison. After all, housing prisoners is a massive taxpayer burden, with annual cost of $26,000 for just one prisoner, and Americans foot an annual bill of roughly $85 billion for corrections.
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