State must reduce prisoners or raise taxes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Even as legislators prepare to make massive cuts to the state’s General Fund budget, which funds Medicaid, prisons, safety and the court system, Alabama prison officials say they are at 190 percent of capacity and fear being ordered by the federal court system to let prisoners go.

In May, the U.S. Supreme Court ordered California to reduce 30,000 inmates from its prison system. The order was in response to lawsuits filed by inmates that contend the overcrowding violated their rights and deprived them of needed medical care and other services.

Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Kim T. Thomas said he and other officials are working to avoid any order for a mass release of inmates to reduce overflowing and are developing a plan to ease crowding.

Already, legislators are vowing that they won’t raise taxes to contend with the looming budget crisis. That means additional cuts to all agencies, including prisons, and no new prisons.

Most expect the state will ask judges to use work release and other programs that allow inmates to remain in their communities while serving their sentences, rather than sending them to prison. Still, there would be costs related to the supervision of those so sentenced.

At present, Alabama is holding 30,970 prisoners in facilities designed to house 16,300. If the federal courts ordered the state to reduce the number of prisoners to 100 percent capacity, that would mean 14,670 would be freed, and there’d be no state beds for new offenses.

Alabama has a reputation for being tough on crime, and in the last decade ranked fifth-highest among states for incarceration rates.

The bottom line is that we can’t have it both ways: We’ll either have to incarcerate fewer people or pay higher taxes.