Two weeks ago, Gov. Kay Ivey made an emphatic announcement about Alabama’s prisons crisis: “This problem has been kicked down the road for the last time,” she said.
That’s not entirely true.
Granted, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers have tried to pick away at the problem with a series of bills in this spring’s session of the Alabama Legislature. It was at a press conference for that group that Ivey made her declaration.
But the Legislature did not pass sweeping reforms aimed at reducing the prisons’ worst problems -- overcrowded and aging facilities that lead to terrible rates of inmate violence. It did just as Ivey said it wouldn’t. It kicked the problem down the road. That’s why Ivey is expected to call a special session for later this year to address what the Department of Justice calls “violations (that) are severe, systemic, and exacerbated by serious deficiencies in staffing and supervision.”
We respect state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, for his leadership on this critical issue. The efforts he and others have pursued -- such as sentencing reforms -- should help reduce the state’s inmate population. But it’s indefensible that the Legislature has focused on a discordant collection of issues this spring instead of making this, and only this, priority No. 1.
Remember: the DOJ’s April 2 report said the department could file a federal lawsuit against Alabama if it did not adequately address its prisons crisis. The DOJ gave Alabama 49 days.
Remember: Eight inmates have been killed and eight others have died by suicide in Alabama prisons already this year.
And, remember: Ivey has previously called for a massive campaign of prison-building that would be costly and politically divisive. Modern prisons aren’t cheap, and politicians are well aware that spending money on inmates isn’t a popular stance come Election Day. Ward was spot-on correct with this recent statement to National Public Radio: “The problem we have is this — in politics it's never popular to fund prisons, but it's a constitutional necessity. But everyone puts prisons last. ... We ignored it for too long. So now we're playing a lot of catch up.”
And, yet, the Alabama Legislature spent time this spring discussing (and, in some cases, passing) bills on laboratory meat, direct shipping of wine and the importation of deer, all of which wilt alongside the abominable Alabama Human Life Protection Act, which bans nearly all abortions in our state without exceptions for rape and incest.
Lawmakers such as state Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, have said there simply isn’t enough time in the regular session to solve the prison crisis, that too much has been on the Legislature’s plate. That may be true. But why, then, spend time on laboratory meat and imported deer and an abortion ban that is doomed to fail in the courts and has already brought our state enduring shame? If prison reform is indeed a priority, the Legislature has an odd way of showing it.