The committee of legislators, state officials and prominent citizens studying ways to improve Alabama prisons met for the first time this week. And the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, as the committee is called, faces a very difficult task.
Gov. Kay Ivey empaneled the task force after a federal judge ruled that conditions in state facilities are so horrific as to be unconstitutional. Violence is widespread and overcrowding is universal in state penal institutions. Medical services are painfully lacking
Problem is, any reasonable solution will surely be unpopular and difficult for the state to implement.
One way to combat overcrowding is to increase paroles, but the state seems to be going in the opposite direction on that. This past regular legislative session lawmakers gave the governor appointment power over the Pardons and Paroles Board after a parolee apparently committed a serious, violent crime in north Alabama.
And what about the money? The federal judge said state prisons need 2,200 additional guards and that mental health care was woefully inadequate. Remedies for those type problems will cost a lot of money. And if legislators try to divert the money from education funds, for instance, the cries will be loud and widespread that legislators were taking the schoolchildren’s money and giving it to criminals.
What about new taxes? Lots of luck selling a “revenue enhancement” for the prisons. Any legislator who voted for that would be serving his/her last term.
Well, what to do? Traditionally, Alabama has ignored meaningful solutions in tight situations, instead ceding its rights and duties to the federal courts.
That may well be what happens in this situation. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson is a no-nonsense jurist. He is being patient, as is the U.S. Department of Justice, in giving the study panel the opportunity to make a recommendation to the Legislature when it meets next February. Yet there is a limit to the Judge’s and Justice’s generosity.
Ivey has said she wants “Alabama solutions” to various problems. Well, she will get her chance in a major way on the prisons issue.
Retired Auburn Attorney Don Eddins is publisher of The Auburn Villager newspaper and the online publication, auburnvillager.com. Before going into law, he was state Capitol reporter for The Huntsville Times and state editor for The Columbus Ledger. Email him your comments about the newspaper to firstname.lastname@example.org.