It is not often that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center find common cause with conservative Republicans in Alabama. But on Tuesday, both sides will celebrate when Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signs legislation that will substantially cut the number of prisoners in state custody.
The legislation reflects a growing bipartisan consensus that a generation of tough-on-crime attitudes that dramatically increased the prison population has placed a burdensome strain on state budgets without actually achieving the goal of rehabilitating offenders. To reduce the number of offenders behind bars, both over the short and long terms, states like Alabama are reclassifying some minor crimes and spending more to make sure those who do wind up in prison don’t come back after their release.
“We’re finally seeing some recognition that mental health and drug abuse are a big part of the problem. And locking someone up and throwing away the key doesn’t solve that problem,” said state Sen. Cam Ward (R), lead sponsor of the bill Bentley will sign.
Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a similar measure this year. Legislators in Nebraska and Washington State are working on their own bills, both of which are likely to pass before legislative sessions end later this year. Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have all passed similar reform measures in recent years.
In every case, criminal justice reform bills reduce the prison time for certain non-violent crimes and create alternative programs aimed at dissuading young offenders from a life of crime.
Alabama’s new law, for example, will allow prosecutors to send more offenders to boot camps, or to community corrections facilities. It also reclassifies minor drug possessions as Class D felonies, which would not qualify for prison time, and increases the number of parole officers on state payroll to provide post-incarceration supervision, which reduces recidivism rates.
The ultimate goal is to reduce prison populations and, eventually, to close prison facilities to save costs. The rapid growth of the prison population has spurred an equal explosion in the amounts states are spending. Those who study corrections budgets say labor costs — for prison staff, pensions and health care — make up the vast majority of prison costs. Those costs are rising, and fast, burdening states even further.
“Policymakers are not only concerned with the high current cost, they’re concerned about the bill that could come due,” said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives at the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.
Different labor laws drive grossly disproportional spending: Alabama shelled out an average of $17,285 per prisoner in fiscal 2010, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. New York, at the top end of the spectrum, spent $60,076 for each of its 59,237 inmates that year.
The political power of unions directly correlates to the amount states spend on their corrections employees, and thus the per-prisoner spending.
“Particularly in the Northeast, states that have more union presence, as opposed to right-to-work states, are going to have higher wages and benefits,” said Christian Henrichson, who conducted the Vera Institute study. “The surest and safest way to cut budgets is to enact laws that reduce the prison population.”
In many states, the prison population is much higher than the capacity of the prison system itself. A 2014 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 28 states are holding more prisoners than their lowest estimated capacity. Alabama’s 26,271 prisoners were nearly double the 13,318 inmates the system was designed to hold. Delaware, Hawaii, Nebraska and North Dakota were all operating at more than 150 percent of capacity.
Alabama’s overcrowded prisons drove legislators to act: The federal government had threatened to take over the state’s prison system unless legislators acted to reduce overcrowding.
“We always pride ourselves on being a strong 10th Amendment Southern state,” Ward said. “We can’t have somebody else fix this for us.”
A broad coalition of liberal and conservative groups have joined together to advocate for criminal justice reform, including George Soros’s Open Society Foundations on the left and Koch Industries on the right; together, the two are funding a $50 million eight-year campaign through the ACLU to push for reforms.
“The population drives the budget,” said Adam Gelb, a criminal justice expert who directs the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project. “You’d have to be naive to not realize that budget situations matter. The budget situation is bringing states to the table.”
The tough-on-crime era of the 1990s and early 2000s has not wholly given up its hold on state legislators, some of whom see little political benefit, and potentially significant political risk, in releasing more prisoners. But, supporters say, the policy benefits, both budgetary and in reducing recidivism, far outweigh the risks.
“Nobody gets votes based upon fixing prisons,” Ward said. “But I think it’s something we should be proud of.”