- Cullman, Alabama

January 5, 2014

Rethinking the prison system

The Cullman Times

CULLMAN — An odd alliance is forming in Washington, but at the root of the movement stands an issue that needs attention.

Both tea party backers and liberal leaders in Congress are pursuing major changes in mandatory sentencing laws. The effort stems from concerns about fairness in the sentencing and the spiraling cost of operating federal prisons.

The Justice Department nearly a quarter of its budget on prisons each year, and the amount is growing annually.

The idea in Congress is to provide judges more flexibility in determining prison sentences in many drug cases, a crime that sends thousands of people to prison each year.

Prison populations gobble up vast amounts of money. One inmate in a federal prison will cost $21,000 to $33,000 depending on the level of security necessary at the facility.

States such as Alabama face similar financial challenges. Alabama’s General Fund is dominated by Medicaid and prisons. The prison system is already too crowded and in danger of federal intervention.

Providing judges with more power in sentencing at the local level would go along way toward reducing costs and actually directing more people involved in illegal drugs to reclaim their lives. Drug court programs are showing some success locally and across the state.

While drug abuse and the selling of drugs illegally are deep concerns in society, some consideration must be given to the effectiveness of incarceration versus rehabilitation programs.

In addition to rehabilitation programs controlled by the courts, effort also needs to be directed into addressing the allure of the drug culture in all walks of society.

The obsession with getting high and the myth that drug use is a recreational activity are more than a generation deep in American society. When drug users are released from prison, it is likely that many return to the same lifestyle that led to incarceration in the first place.

Changing sentencing guidelines is not about throwing open the prison doors. This is a matter of what works best.