The U.S. Department of Justice’s recent lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections highlights the many failings of the state’s prison system, from dangerous and unsanitary conditions to correctional officers who abuse and assault incarcerated individuals.
The driver of these problems is simple: Alabama over-incarcerates its people.
If meaningful, lasting change is the goal, then both the Department of Justice and Alabama need to focus first on downsizing the prison population. Reducing the incarcerated population will help the state comply with basic constitutional standards. It will also enable Alabama to channel its resources toward addressing residents’ basic needs, such as combatting Covid-19 as the pandemic continues to ravage the state. And for lasting change to stick, both the Alabama legislature and the state’s prosecutors must commit to reforms that end the assembly-line system into Alabama jails and prisons.
If Alabama were a country, its per-capita incarceration rate would top that of every other nation in the world. Alabama’s incarceration rate—946 persons per 100,000 residents as of 2018—places the state in the top five within the United States. This rate has grown exponentially over the last 40 years, driven in part by the state’s adoption of—and prosecutors’ subsequent reliance on—the Habitual Felony Offender Act. Between the law’s passage in 1977 and 2000, for example, Alabama’s prison population increased by over 600 percent.
Laws like the Habitual Felony Offender Act do not deter violent crime. Instead, the law triggers life sentences and harsh sentencing enhancements for people whose crimes do not warrant them, contributing to mass incarceration. Communities of color disproportionately bear the burden of Alabama’s archaic system. Black people make up only 25% of Alabama’s population, but more than half of the state’s incarcerated population is Black.
Alabama’s drive to lock up more of its own year after year has resulted in an unconscionable prison system that is bursting at the seams. As of 2019, the state was incarcerating over 20,000 individuals in a prison system designed to hold 12,000. The result of Alabama’s shortsighted push to incarcerate is the unconstitutional chaos highlighted in the Department of Justice lawsuit: overcrowding, denial of basic necessities, and ever-present violence.
Covid-19 only magnified the devastating impact of Alabama’s prison system. As recounted in a letter from multiple civil-rights organizations, including the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Alabama has deprived Covid-19 patients and other incarcerated individuals of adequate medical care, bathroom access, shower access, and essential hygiene items. In response to the letter, Alabama disclaimed any problem in its facilities, consistent with its steadfast refusal to even attempt to address any of its longstanding problems. Even in pre-pandemic times, Alabama failed in providing adequate medical care or safe and sanitary settings. Nine months into the pandemic, Alabama now ranks fourth in the country in per-capita Covid-19 deaths among incarcerated populations, earning an “F” grade in its handling of Covid-19 in prisons.
There are financial costs in addition to the human costs. From 2009 to 2019, the state’s prison costs skyrocketed from $422 million to $535 million—an increase of over 25% in one decade.
The solution is not more correctional officers, more prisons, or more prison beds. The solution is not more spending on incarceration. Alabama can reduce its prison population without compromising public safety, as shown by California’s experience in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s mandate in 2011 that California reduce its prison population from an occupancy rate of around 200 percent. California implemented various responses to downsize its prisons by ten of thousands of people, reclassifying some low-level offenses as misdemeanors, repealing portions of its three-strikes law, and increasing parole eligibility.
And if Alabama reduced its prison spending by even 10% through the downsizing of its prison population, the state would see about $50 million freed up for initiatives to meet basic human needs and simultaneously advance public-safety goals.
But immediate downsizing alone is not enough, particularly not when Alabama has shown such resistance to change within its prison system. A lasting solution requires sweeping legislative change that repeals habitual-offender provisions, reduces sentences for lower-level offenses, and overhauls the state’s community supervision, diversion, and parole programs—and prosecutors must exercise their discretion in ways that reduce rather than expand the constant flow of people into Alabama’s jails and prisons.
If the Department of Justice is serious about its efforts to change the Alabama prison system, and if President-elect Joseph R. Biden is serious about his campaign’s promises to reverse this country’s pattern of over-incarceration, then the Department of Justice should call for the immediate downsizing of Alabama’s prison system. And Alabama legislators should heed community organizations’ longstanding calls for institutional change.
The people of Alabama—particularly those communities disproportionately impacted by the state’s over-incarceration crisis—deserve better.
John Fowler is Counsel with the Criminal Justice Project of the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and a former Supervising Attorney with the Public Defender Service for the District of Columbia.