Mississippi lawmakers: Alabama’s mega-prison bill won’t fix problem

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By Mississippi State Senator Derrick Simmons (D) and Mississippi State Representative Joel Bomgar (R)

Mississippi and Alabama have a lot in common – a shared border, Southern culture and some of the highest incarceration rates in the country.

In fact, every year for almost two decades, Mississippi has kept more people in prison per capita than Alabama. Last year, that changed for the first time since the 1990s. After enduring decades of a bloated prison system that was draining our state budgets, the Mississippi legislature took a hard look at how much our prison system was costing us—both in human terms and economically.

The legislature looked at who was in prison, why and for how long. In 2014, Mississippi passed HB 585, a major criminal justice reform bill that addressed a range of issues from diversion and community supervision to sentencing and parole. Over the last two years, our prison population has fallen by 15%. The smart, evidence-based and fiscally responsible reforms are working, not only because they are reducing the prison population, but also because they have began to alleviate the serious human and financial toll of our broken prison system.

We are, of course, tremendously proud of this bill – one of us proud to vote for it and one proud to join a legislature that had passed it – and we were encouraged to learn that Alabama was exploring similar legislation for their state and its people. Last year, the Alabama legislature passed SB 67, a prison reform bill that was created to safely reduce Alabama’s prison population.

While it is still too soon to accurately assess the impacts of the legislation (it has only been in effect for three months), Mississippi’s experience suggests that it will alleviate the budget costs and burdens on Alabama families as well.  Alabama is on its way to fixing a part of its very broken criminal justice system—or so it seemed.  This week, a committee approved an $800 million bond for a prison construction project to build four new mega-prisons, proposed by Governor Bentley.

This plan doesn’t solve the problem of nationally-ranked incarceration numbers, and will come at a staggering cost to Alabama taxpayers. While the bond issue may be for $800 million, the Alabama Policy Institute found that the total cost to the state would be $1.5 billion, possibly even more. They also found that the math underlying the estimated savings in the legislation is unrealistic, while the math behind the debt is very real.

In Mississippi, policymakers and stakeholders spent the better part of a year closely examining the drivers, costs and reforms that would go into our prison reform bill before the legislature passed it. Last year in Alabama, legislators and stakeholders did the same before passing SB 67. So why is Governor Bentley trying so hard to pass this legislation without a similar hard look at what it will do and what it will cost?

Let your reform legislation do its work. SB 67 has only been in effect for less than 3 months!

You can’t build your way out of this problem. Our bill continues to prove that you can safely and effectively reduce your prison population. Alabamans need a smarter system, not more prisons and a $1.5 billion bill.