Saturday, November 05, 2005

Crowded Prisons

The Times Daily

Should nonviolent drug offenders be sent to Alabama's prisons or diverted to community based corrections or substance abuse programs?

Alabama's prisons are overcrowded and too many nonviolent offenders are being locked up there instead of being dealt with at the local level. It's an expense that state taxpayers cannot afford.

Nearly one-third of state prison admissions in Alabama are for drug offenses, which is driving overcrowding, according to a prison study released last week.

The study is cited as more evidence that nonviolent drug offenders should be diverted to community corrections or substance abuse programs.

State Rep. Locy Baker, an Abbeville Democrat, said the report by the New York-based Justice Strategies reinforces a proposal submitted to Gov. Bob Riley by his task force on prison overcrowding.

It recommended alleviating the inmate population with alternative means of punishment, including transition centers, community corrections and drug treatment programs.

A number of sentencing reform bills are expected to be considered during the 2006 session of the Alabama Legislature.

The report also notes that Alabama's tough sentencing rules against nonviolent drug offenders are creating racial and geographic disparities in the prison population.

More than half of the prisoners locked up for first degree marijuana possession are black men, even though blacks represent only 26 percent of the state's population. And sentences for the drug offenses tend to be longer, an average of 8.4 years for the marijuana offense while felony driving under the influence results in a sentence of only about half that.

In addition, some rural counties have no local community drug treatment programs, which means they send minor offenders to state prisons rather than bear the cost of local incarceration.

All of this adds up to not doing what is right by minor offenders.

Researchers say shifting more inmates from state prisons to community corrections would save taxpayers money. Allowing inmates to work in community based programs costs only one-third as much as the $33 a day we now spend on housing them in state prisons.

Rehabilitation programs are a better use of our money than warehousing minor offenders in prisons where they are likely to turn out worse than before they were incarcerated.

It's easy to be tough on crime; it's much harder to come up with the cash to pay for more state prisons.

The state should look hard for lower-cost alternatives that can be shown to be effective in rehabilitating offenders.

Dear Editor,

In response to (Crowded Prisons Nov. 5, 2005),

While I am all for treatment and community corrections instead of prison for non-violent drug offenders I am somewhat concerned about the possibility of forced treatment of non-violent marijuana smokers.

Since the majority of non-violent drug offenders are guilty of nothing more than possessing a few joints they will still make up the majority of people forced into treatment. This will still cost Alabama taxpayers a great deal of money and will drain resources away from treating hard drug addiction.

As someone who has worked in drug policy and prison reform in Alabama for the last three years I'd like to make a few suggestions to the Task Force on Prison Overcrowding and to the citizens of Alabama.

1. Marijuana should be separated from hard drugs and regulated in a way similar to alcohol and tobacco. There should be no threat of arrest, fines, drug testing, hardship or any other form of punishment imposed on adults who use marijuana responsibly in the privacy of their own homes.

There exists in Alabama a large group of people willing to pay a reasonable tax on marijuana. The tax money collected could be used to fund drug courts and treatment for hard drug addicts just as the money collected in tax from the sale of alcohol is used to help fund D.H.R.

Never mind the Federal government...we have states rights.

2. Drug courts and treatment resources should be directed at helping those who are addicted to hard drugs. To allow them to become clogged with pot smokers is self-defeating and will ensure future problems.

3. As for start up funding for drug courts and treatment centers in all Alabama communities, how about doing what Morgan County recently did on a statewide level?

" Morgan County Commission Chairman John Glasscock said he has identified money needed to start the (community corrections) program.
He said the money will come from the law enforcement fund that the county uses for matching funds for drug task force grants."

Since we won't be imprisoning drug offenders anymore we won't need drug task forces anymore and there is no reason not to redirect that money to more productive and humane ways of addressing drug use in Alabama.

Respectfully Submitted for publication,
Loretta Nall
Alabama Gubernatorial Candidate 2006
Vote Nall Y'all

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