Alabamians hear a lot of numbers in the discussions of our state’s massively overcrowded prison system. There’s the oft-cited fact that our inmate population of 26,000-plus is about twice what our prison facilities were built to house. There’s the fact that prisons are the second largest line item in the General Fund budget at nearly $395 million for fiscal 2015, and the scary reality that our ratio of inmates to corrections officers is twice the national average.
Two other numbers, however, haven’t gotten as much attention, yet they are hugely important for Alabamians to know and understand — especially those who claim to be untroubled by the state’s high incarceration rate and supportive of locking up virtually all offenders.
One way to address the overcrowding problem is to build more prisons. Some claim to like that idea, but we suspect it would become considerably less popular once its fiscal aspects are examined. Here’s where those two numbers come in:
According to the Council of State Governments Justice Center, it would cost Alabama $840 million to build enough prison space to end the overcrowding. Prisons don’t operate themselves, of course, and the center puts the additional cost of actually operating the new prisons at $186 million a year.
Put another way, that’s more than $1 billion to build the prisons and then operate them for the first year. If the problem weren’t so serious, this would almost be laughable in light of Alabama’s strapped finances.
The next time you hear one of the lock-’em-up crowd talk about doing that, mention that figure and see what response you get.
Even if this were the best way to deal with overcrowding, which it isn’t, it’s simply not a realistic expenditure for Alabama. The projected construction costs alone are more than twice the current budget for the Department of Corrections, and the additional operating costs are almost half the current DOC budget. It’s not doable. It’s not even close to doable.
The only realistic way to deal with the overcrowding is a broad-based approach that sharply slows down the rate at which people are placed in the prison system. That doesn’t mean “coddling criminals,” the reflexive claim of those who cling to traditional incarceration as the best course.
Instead, it means sensible sentencing that more accurately takes into account the societal threat of the crime, expanded use of community corrections programs that are far less costly than prisons, and strict treatment programs for those whose drug addictions contributed to their crimes. It means the recognition that most inmates will one day be released and so it is in the state’s best interest that they be better prepared to function within society.
To be sure, some crimes demand incarceration. Some offenders present a genuine physical threat to the law-abiding populace and must be imprisoned. The state will always have to maintain enough prison capacity to properly protect its people in such cases, but that doesn’t make incarceration the best option in general.
Especially when it comes with a billion-dollar price tag.