If Alabama were a country, it would have a higher percentage of its citizens in jail than any other country in the world.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative, a criminal justice think tank, 861 out of every 100,000 Alabamians are in jail. The U.S. as a whole incarcerates 716 people for every 100,000 residents, far ahead of second-place country, Cuba, which incarcerates 510 out of every 100,000 residents.
Alabama is actually one of 13 states in the U.S. that has an incarceration rate higher than any country. But it’s not only the state’s total prison population that has proved costly and problematic, it’s the fact that Alabama also has the most serious prison overcrowding problem in the U.S. It’s so bad that the state could be running the risk of federal courts stepping in and ordering the haphazard release of thousands of prisoners.
California serves as an example of what can happen when the federal government is forced to intervene.
In the 2011 Supreme Court case Brown v. Plata, the Court required the State of California to remove 46,000 criminals from its prisons by forcing The Golden State to cut its prison population to 137.5 percent of “design capacity.”
The Public Policy Institute of California found that property crime increased by 7.6 percent the year after the mass releases. Car thefts rose almost 15 percent. In short, 24,000 more people had their car stolen in California in 2012 as a result of the state not being able to get its prison overcrowding problem under control.
Alabama’s prisons are at roughly 190 percent capacity, 50 percent higher than the level the Court mandated for California. The Yellowhammer State currently houses over 25,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold approximately 13,000.
Alabama has also seen a 95 percent increase in the cost per inmate over the last two decades. As of 2008, the state was spending $15,178 per inmate each year. That’s $41.47 for each inmate every single day.
The top officials in all three branches of Alabama’s state government came together in early June to announce the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a comprehensive study of the state’s criminal justice system aimed at finding solutions to the serious issues facing Alabama’s underfunded, overcrowded prisons.
“The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is an opportunity for Alabama to examine the criminal justice system in order to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety,” said Gov. Robert Bentley. “The number of inmates incarcerated in Alabama has significantly increased over the last decade. With the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we have an opportunity to examine areas to maximize efforts in the criminal justice system that will benefit our Department of Corrections. By participating in the study, we will have a detailed understanding of drivers behind Alabama’s prison population growth and identify ways to reduce growth.”
The JRI will be spearheaded by nearly 30 sate leaders, known collectively as the Prison Reform Task Force. The group, which is chaired by State Sen. Cam War (R-Alabaster), held its first meeting earlier this month, with plans to begin examining criminal justice trends, review successful approaches used by other states facing similar challenges and identify key areas to explore during the study.
“This is the biggest challenge our state has ever faced,” Ward said. “Alabama has to start being not only tough on crime but we have to be smart on crime. This effort represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to accomplish this goal”
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