Alabama's incarceration rate one of nation's five highest, up 349% since 1978

Alabama has one of the nation’s highest incarceration rates, and the costs of decades of explosive growth in the state’s prison population are increasingly consuming funds that could support health care and other important services, according to a new study released Oct. 28, 2014, by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP), a nonprofit research organization in Washington, D.C.

Alabama is one of five states with more than 600 people in prison per every 100,000 residents, the CBPP study finds. The state’s incarceration rate has jumped by 349 percent since 1978. Arise Citizens’ Policy Project executive director Kimble Forrister urged state officials to reverse that growth with safe, sensible reforms of Alabama’s sentencing and parole policies and to invest the savings in Medicaid, child care and other services that help low-income families improve their lives and escape poverty.

“Stronger support for health care, mental health services and substance abuse treatment can build stronger communities, cut costs and reduce crime in our state,” Forrister said. “Alabama should invest in our people now so we can enjoy a brighter future tomorrow.”

Corrections spending in the states increased by 141 percent between 1986 and 2013, CBPP finds. Without that jump, states would have had an additional $28 billion each year to spend on crucial services like education, health care, child care and effective rehabilitation programs.

South Carolina and other states in recent years have adopted criminal justice reforms designed to reduce prison populations and save money. In Alabama, a Prison Reform Task Force has met several times this year to study a wide range of potential prison alternatives and sentencing changes, with an eye toward recommending policy changes before the 2015 legislative session.

The number of people in Alabama prisons has more than quintupled in the last 35 years as harsh sentencing laws have sent more people to prison for nonviolent crimes. This trend has contributed to a higher poverty rate, the CBPP study says, by removing nonviolent offenders from the economy during their incarceration and leaving them with a criminal record that makes it harder to find a job to support themselves and their families afterward.

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