Judges, probation officers, district attorneys, criminal justice experts and legislators will soon be gathering for a sentencing workshop to discuss best practices and to gain insights on effective corrections solutions. This will be an important conference that is taking place at a critical time for Alabama.
For years, this state has struggled with a growing prison population and corresponding costs. Alabama ranks sixth in the country in the number of adults in prison or jail, with 1 in 75 behind bars, compared to 1 in 100 nationally. The state’s prison system is now operating at 195 percent of capacity, earning the state the dubious title of the most crowded state prison system in the United States.
Over the last 20 years, the annual cost of corrections in Alabama has more than quadrupled — growing from $105 million in 1988 to $577 million in 2008. Yet, for all this spending taxpayers are not seeing a solid return in terms of public safety. In fact, recidivism rates are also on the rise.
Analysis shows several interesting factors about the state’s correctional population. For example, a significant number of offenders who we put behind bars are not there for violent offenses, but for drug and property crimes. In 2009, drug offenses accounted for more than over 50 percent of new admissions to prison.
Can we design a better, more effective corrections system that contains costs and gets taxpayers a better return on their public safety dollars? I believe we can.
That is why I was pleased to join legislators, other members of the judiciary, district attorneys, defense lawyers, the Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Sentencing Commission to convene the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition to explore what factors are influencing this growth and to develop data-driven solutions for enhancing the state’s criminal justice system.
Over the next several months, the coalition, with assistance from the Vera Institute of Justice, will continue its comprehensive review of the state’s sentencing trends and practices. The coalition has held working group meetings since April in order to recommend data-driven policies to the state Legislature that will be cost-effective, hold offenders accountable, enhance public safety and help manage the prison population.
Our state is in obvious need of change. Alabama can alleviate prison overcrowding while at the same time hold offenders accountable. Research shows there are effective corrections strategies for low-risk offenders that can produce less crime at less cost, while saving expensive prison space for violent offenders who need to be there.
It is time for Alabama to take a data-driven approach to corrections policy to better preserve public safety and our state’s pocketbook. We must stop the revolving door.
Sue Bell Cobb is Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court.