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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This holiday season, online shoppers from Alabama can expect a higher price at checkout due to the state’s new tax policy. Alabama’s Simplified Sellers Use Tax, colloquially known as the ‘Amazon tax,’ is the latest in a series of state laws seeking to get around the Constitution in order to force out-of-state retailers to collect state taxes, in the name of protecting small businesses.
Amazon, despite being the tax’s popular namesake and one of its primary targets, has yet to challenge the tax. This complacency seems to undermine Alabama’s justification that the tax will protect local business from Amazon. Instead, it is more likely that the new program serves to boost the bankrupt state’s waning General Fund, rather than promote fair competition for local businesses.
Unfortunately for Alabama, there are constitutional limitations on state taxation. Over a century of case law recognize that a state cannot regulate business outside its jurisdiction, or pass laws which discriminate against interstate commerce.
States can only constitutionally tax businesses having a “substantial nexus,” or connection, with the state. For years, “substantial nexus” has been understood to require some sort of physical presence inside the state, and following Scripto, Inc. v. Carson, the “furthest constitutional reach”is the presence of ten independent contractors acting as local salespeople.
Continue reading at Watchdog.
Many libertarians this week are cheering an Alabama state senate bill that gets the government out of the marriage business altogether. Introduced by Rep. Greg Albritton, SB 377 would require future couples getting married in the Yellowhammer State to write up a contract instead of seeking a state license. As explained from AL.com:
The Republican senator from Albritton [sic] said the bill will take the state out of sanctifying marriages, and the probate’s office wouldn’t issue a marriage license. The legislation wouldn’t even require a couple to have a wedding.
“The sanctity of marriage cannot be sanctified by government of men,” Albritton said. “That is where we have gotten ourselves in trouble.”
Albritton’s bill would require couples wanting to be married to enter into a properly executed contract witnessed by two adults. The contract would then be filed in the probate’s office.
It’s easy to see why libertarians and constitutional conservatives would cheer such a policy push. For decades, liberty lovers have been calling to end marriage licensure as a way to end the gay marriage debate. Marriage, after all, is a historically religious institution that has evolved for centuries, and many cultures and religious groups have varying definitions of it even today.
While leaving the complex matter of marriage up to two consenting adults and their community is undoubtedly the best option in a libertarian utopia, the unfortunate reality is that doing so in the American legal system today would put a couple at significant disadvantage. To be specific, the federal government has a number of tax and entitlement benefits earmarked specifically for married couples, and Alabama’s failure to recognize a couple’s nuptials — gay or straight — could lead to a bureaucratic headache.
Without a marriage license, a couple cannot file taxes jointly, potentially resulting in thousands of dollars each year. Worse, a surviving spouse cannot receive an estate tax exemption or Social Security benefits when their loved one dies. The list goes on and on. Until the federal government recognizes contracts as an alternative to a marriage license, it seems to me that Senate Bill 377’s chances of enactment are bleak.
Reprinted with permission from Rare.