By Carla Crowder, Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice
Something almost miraculous is happening in Alabama prisons. The number of young people in prison has halved since 2005. Buried in statistical reports on the Alabama Department of Corrections, the figures are clear: in 2005, prisons housed 9,827 people aged 15 to 30, or 36% of the ADOC population. In March 2021, that number was 4,537, or 18%. That this drop has hit people aged 15 to 30, by all numbers, the age groups most likely to be arrested, is breathtaking.
These dramatic declines are in large part the result of the Alabama Legislature passing significant sentencing reforms in 2006, 2013, and 2015. The new laws are working. Fewer young people are sent to prison, the sentences are shorter, the Habitual Felony Offender Act is used less.
And crime has gone down.
According to crime.alabama.gov, a collaborative effort between the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency and the Institute of Business Analytics at the Culverhouse College of Business at the University of Alabama, Alabama’s overall crime rate fell by 17% from 2005 to 2019, most recent year data available. Theft, the most common violent crime, fell 48%.
Let it sink in: Alabama cut incarceration in half for the age cohort most likely to be involved in criminal activity, and crime has gone down.
The specter of expensive new prison buildings dominates discussions of responses to the US Department of Justice’s lawsuit against the state for unconstitutional detention conditions. But as elected leaders from all walks of life have recognized, Alabama cannot get out of the prison crisis.
Let us also recall what the US Department of Justice said in its 2019 report: “[W]While new facilities may solve some of these physical facility issues, it is important to note that new facilities on their own will not resolve the factors that contribute to the overall unconstitutional condition of ADOC prisons, such as the lack of personnel, culture, management deficiencies, corruption, policies, training, non-existent investigations, violence, illicit drugs and sexual abuse. And the new facilities would quickly fall into disrepair if the prisoners were not monitored and largely left to their own devices, as is currently the case.
So what might a solution that relies on data and evidence rather than the emotional politics of fear look like? How could Alabama move beyond its outdated ‘tough on crime’ mentality and become ‘smart on crime’ again as happened in 2006, 2013 and 2015? What if we trusted the evidence produced by our own law enforcement agency? We have tools at our disposal to alleviate this crisis – and we have already started to use them, to great effect.
Based on the trends cited above, solutions are at hand – smart, conservative solutions that won’t waste taxpayer dollars. No compassion is even needed, although it never hurts. People who think that the people who commit the crime should make time do not have to worry. All that is needed is that we adjust the “time” to what the evidence tells us that it is already working.
First, although the number of youth incarcerated is at its lowest in 20 years, the number of incarcerated seniors aged 51 and over is at record levels. There are now 6,190 prisoners in this older population, a 115% increase from 2005. Alabama’s unconstitutional prisons are quickly becoming unconstitutional retirement homes.
If you’re wondering how you missed Alabama senior criminal madness, don’t worry. There were none. The Bureau of Justice Statistics has documented in detail how arrests peak at age 20 and drop to the lowest rates for people 50 and older.
The reason so many grandparents stay behind the razor’s edge is that the reforms that have lowered the number of people entering prison are not retroactive. Therefore, we punish our seniors harder than any other age group. They are sentenced to life imprisonment at grossly disproportionate rates.
It is unfair and costly.
Among the main culprits in the surging budget for the Alabama Department of Corrections are health care costs, which will only continue to rise. Between the aging of the population and the federal government Braggs vs. Dunn litigation over unconstitutional mental health care in prisons, future prison spending must take into account the enormous and costly needs of these fragile populations. Otherwise, our state can expect the endless cycle of federal lawsuits and receiverships that began in the 1970s to continue.
“The prison has become a retirement home and a psychiatric institution,” according to Ronald McKeithen. He should know, having spent 37 years incarcerated for a theft in a convenience store with no injuries.
Mr McKeihen is now at home, after victims, Jefferson County District Attorney Danny Carr, and Circuit Judge Shanta Owens acknowledged constitutional concerns over the unfairness of his sentence. Six months after his release, he is employed at a drug treatment center, a licensed driver and a registered voter. At 59, he applied to become a Certified Recovery Support Specialist so he could use his experiences to help others overcome drug problems.
Mr. McKeithen is not an anomaly. Alvin Kennard spent 36 years in jail for a $ 50 theft from a bakery before Judge Bessemer David Carpenter and District Attorney Lynneice Washington agreed he deserved freedom and ended his life without parole in 2019. Mr. Kennard, 60, now works repairing damaged cars at a Ford dealership. His bosses have asked for more workers like him.
Alabama needs workers, not prisons full of old people.
Yet when additional reforms emerge that would give more seniors a chance – not a guarantee, just an opportunity – on the same sentences currently available to 20-year-olds, opponents are citing the most sensational of crimes. Data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission tells a different story about who would be eligible to seek a second chance if lawmakers passed sensible reforms. More people serving heavier sentences under HFOA for robbery – 1,029 people – than for rape, kidnapping, child sexual abuse and sodomy combined. In addition, most robbery convictions do not involve physical injury.
Alabama has a chance to respond to the prison crisis and the impending federal intervention with integrity, evidence and truth. With hope rather than hype. Our lawmakers took bold decisions when they passed the aforementioned reforms in 2006, 2013 and 2015. Fewer people went to jail. Crime has gone down. We could multiply these promising results by making these reforms available retroactively in cases where resentment would not be detrimental to public safety. We could create justice for our elders.
This would free up dollars that would otherwise be spent in highly secure nursing facilities for elderly inmates for the purposes of crime prevention, drug treatment and inmate reintegration.
Looming decisions regarding prison construction and criminal justice policy will affect Alabama for generations. Let’s build on the success of 16 years of sentencing reform rather than taking the easy – and very expensive – solution of simply building more prisons.
Carla Crowder, JD, is executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice. She has spent time with people incarcerated in 15 prisons in Alabama, as well as in prisons in New Mexico, Colorado, Missouri, Florida, Louisiana and North Carolina.