MONTGOMERY, AL - A report released on Monday
identifies the incarceration of non-violent drug offenders as the underlying reason for the dramatic growth and over population of Alabama's prison system - and the fiscal crisis it has wrought. The report also uncovers deep racial disparities in Alabama's criminal justice system. Alabama Prison Crisis
, authored by Justice Strategies and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, found that the rapid growth in Alabama's prison population - which currently ranks fifth nationally - was fueled by the incarceration of people convicted of non-violent offenses, primarily drug and property violations.
African Americans, who make up approximately 25 percent of Alabama's population, constitute 60 percent of the state's prison inmates and have been hit especially hard by prison expansion and overcrowding. "Our objective should not be incarceration, but restoration," said Reverend Kenneth Glasgow of Dothan, and the co-director of Alabama's New Bottom Line Campaign. The New Bottom Line Campaign, which Glasgow runs along with Reverend Kobi Little of Selma, seeks to shift policies as they relate to criminal justice issues.
According to the report, the use of incarceration for offenses that are directly tied to substance abuse contributes significantly to Alabama's overcrowding crisis. Among the ten leading commitment offenses, the top three are substance-related. In 2004, more people were admitted to prison for possession of marijuana than for first- and second-degree assaults combined. "When people have been displaced by storms and when state coffers are at an all-time low, does it really make sense for Alabama to spend taxpayer dollars on locking up people for smoking marijuana?" questioned Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance.
"If the purpose of prisons is to combat crime and ensure public safety, then Alabama's tendency to 'lock them up and let the parole board sort them out' must be viewed as a failure," said Judy Greene, the report's co-author. "Locking up people for nonviolent drug offenses has not only driven massive prison overcrowding in Alabama, but has failed to effectively and humanely address the real problem of substance abuse."
Advocates say that the prison crisis cannot be solved without substantive sentencing reforms and a more community-based, public health approach to drug policy. "The Sentencing Commission's package is the right place to start," said Rev. Glasgow. "But Alabama also needs to reform the Habitual Offender law and the Split Sentences statutes, too. Drug policy must finally be viewed through a lens of public health rather than criminal justice."