by Patrick Armstrong, Program Associate
Recently, Alabama state leaders from all three branches of government and criminal justice stakeholders, including judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, attended the Smart on Crime Reentry Policy Summit to explore opportunities to address the state’s overcrowded prisons and high rates of recidivism. Held in Birmingham at the Cumberland School of Law, the October 16th event was organized by the North Alabama Reentry Council with the support of U.S. Attorney Joyce White Vance.
According to Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner Kim Thomas, 95 percent of the prison population in the state will eventually be released back into the community. About one-third of these individuals are likely to return to prison within three years. Such recidivism rates burden a system where facilities operate at about 190 percent of capacity, limiting the department’s ability to focus on effective reentry strategies. To assist ADOC’s efforts to improve reentry and coordinate with other agencies and community partners, ADOC was awarded grant funding through the Second Chance Act.
“The prison system is over capacity and the inmate population continues to increase,” Governor Robert Bentley explained. “We must prioritize our prison bed space for those who pose the greatest danger to society.”
“We can’t arrest our way out of the problems of crime,” U.S. Attorney Vance said, echoing the Governor’s call to maximize prison space for violent individuals. “We often use scarce prison space on folks that don’t need to be in there.”
As part of the summit, the Council of State Governments Justice Center and leaders from Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia discussed how a data-driven, consensus-based approach called justice reinvestment worked in these states. Justice reinvestment involves developing policies to reduce corrections costs and reinvest savings in strategies that increase public safety and reduce recidivism. These examples served as case studies for state leaders in their discussions on how similar policies might be applied in Alabama.
Participating in this summit was an important first step for Alabama policymakers. As they build on the foundation established at this event, they have the opportunity to make meaningful, lasting progress in containing the skyrocketing costs of corrections, while reducing recidivism and increasing the safety of their communities.
“We don’t have to reinvent these fixes—they’re out there,” Senator Cam Ward reminded the audience. “There are proven techniques and proven programs that work to help with reentry and alternative sentencing.”