News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Taxpayers get benefits of alternative sentencing

The Alabama Sentencing Commission report for 2004 found that almost half of the inmates in state prisons are there for nonviolent property and drug crimes.

That's why the state prison system stays in perpetual funding crisis and why counties across the state are building bigger jails. And it is why Morgan County is under federal decree to get its new $23 million facility open.

Morgan County apparently is finally going to join the other 34 counties that have community corrections programs. The County Commission this week approved $50,000 for the remainder of the fiscal year to get the program started.

Ideally, it makes sense to toss a thief into prison and get him off the streets. It is equally good thinking to get drug peddlers off the streets.

Yet, the get-tough-on-crime philosophy that was popular a few years ago is a black hole into which the state continues to pour money, and with poor results.

Morgan County sends an average of 21 inmates to the prison system each month. Under a community corrections program, that number could drop dramatically and the cost would be reduced. The number depends on the sentences judges give and the number of inmates who can pass a 10-point checklist.

County corrections programs have a variety of ways to keep tabs on inmates. Some, for instance, may work at jobs during the day and return to lockup at night. Some may wear electric ankle monitors, as Martha Stewart did when she left prison. Others may get treatment for drug addiction or mental illness.

The state pays the county to keep these inmates rather than send them to prison.

It is surprising that the local Community Corrections and Court Services Commission has waited so long to ask the County Commission for money to get the program started. The federal consent decree that resulted in building the new jail includes alternative sentencing.

Even if that had not been part of the settlement, continuing to give prison sentences to inmates who might do better in a less-restrictive environment is failure to acknowledge the shortcomings of the old system.

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