Friday, September 01, 2006

Backlog Cleared, but for how long?

If I didn't know better I'd think the Montgomery Advertiser was reading my blog. This is a fantastic editorial.

For the second time in about two years, the backlog of state inmates in county jails has been eliminated. That's commendable, to be sure, but serious questions remain about the state's ability to keep the situation stable.

The Department of Corrections, to its credit, has managed to find ways to accommodate more prisoners sooner, thus getting state inmates out of county jails within the 30-day period agreed to years ago in the settlement of a lawsuit, but repeatedly violated. What hasn't happened, and what the department is not empowered to make happen, is the implementation of broad-based sentencing reform that reduces the number of people sent to prison by establishing more sensible sentencing practices.

The need for that was underscored in an earlier effort to eliminate the backlog by accelerating the parole process for nonviolent offenders. In late 2004, a backlog that had reached 1,600 was cut to zero, but that didn't last. It couldn't last because sentencing practices did not change and persons who should have served sentences in alternative ways that are both less expensive and more productive continued to flow into the prison system.

Incarceration in a state penitentiary is simply not a smart way to deal with, say, a drug possession offender. Certainly there are crimes for which incarceration is the only responsible course for the protection of the public safety, but there also are offenses that are far better handled with alternative sentences.

The department and Commissioner Richard Allen, who took over in February, deserve praise for acting to eliminate the latest backlog. Some existing prisons were reconfigured to create about 850 additional beds. About 300 more beds will open when construction at the Limestone Correctional Facility is complete Converting some existing facilities to house inmates created additional beds.

The department also continues to use private prison space in Louisiana, where it recently signed a contract to house 600 inmates. It now has about 500 male inmates and 300 female inmates in private prisons in Louisiana.

This practice, necessitated by crushing overcrowding in Alabama's prisons, remains a serious concern. The Advertiser for years has argued against it as a long-term practice, on the grounds that depriving individuals of liberty is a solemn action by the state that carries with it an equally solemn responsibility. A private-sector prison is a money-making operation, of course, and thus has a potentially dangerous incentive to cut corners in ways that could endanger inmates as well as the law-abiding public.

This laudable success in eliminating the county jail backlog is a notable accomplishment, but until sentencing reform is in place and our laws stop needlessly sending people to prison, one can only wonder how long it will last.


No comments: