- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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Dec. 11

The Gadsden Times on Alabama’s prison problem:

Alabama’s prison system is a well-documented and ongoing mess. No one would argue that point, but when the discussion turns to what should be done to fix it, viewpoints diverge.

Gov. Robert Bentley wants to begin addressing the problem of prison overcrowding by building four “Mega Prisons” to replace the state’s 14 existing prisons, at an estimated cost of $800 million. Bentley says his plan would actually save the state’s taxpayers millions through this consolidation, but skeptics question the reliability of those numbers. Detractors predict the price tag would ultimately blow past the projected costs and the savings would not materialize.

Others say building new prisons is not the answer, and amounts to little more than throwing money at the problem. Their focus would be on systemic improvements such as revisions in sentencing guidelines to allow for alternative sentences for relatively minor crimes like shoplifting, writing bad checks or possessing marijuana. Currently, a guilty finding for these offenses can lead to years of incarceration, and in many instances, these people find themselves housed in prisons next to murderers, rapists and other violent criminals.

Still others point to a lack of funding for the existing prison systems as the place to start. At present, Alabama spends less per day to house an inmate than any other state by a wide margin, which translates to dangerously low guard-to-inmate ratios, overcrowding, medical staff shortages, unsanitary living conditions and other minimum quality-of-life issues. Right now, there are 21 doctors responsible for providing medical care for about 23,300 prisoners statewide.

It seems clear to us that each of these should be components of a comprehensive plan to address Alabama’s prison problems. While the question of where to start may be a legitimate topic for debate, it has taken on new urgency because of a lawsuit that went to trial last Monday.

A class action suit alleging Alabama’s prisoners are being denied basic medical and mental health care in violation of the Eight Amendment is being prosecuted by the Southern Poverty Law Center. At the same time, the Department of Justice is examining whether Alabama’s overcrowding represents a violation of prisoners’ civil rights.

Were the lawsuits to prevail, Alabama could see the federal courts place our prison system in receivership, essentially placing the prisons under federal control, something not done since the 1970s for what amounts to many of the same issues.

So, it’s time for some action. This newspaper believes it is in the best interest of Alabama taxpayers that our elected officials begin addressing these problems rather than seeing the feds step in. But as with most things, it all comes down to money.

In a state budget chronically short of available funds, prison reform measures tend to lose out to projects with a more desirable constituency. It’s hard for politicians to gin up much support from voters for prison reform when there are also pressing needs in education, health care and other public programs.

Somehow, someone needs to find the political will to make the case to Alabama taxpayers that prison reform is in their best interest. The arguments are there to be made. Now to paraphrase: “Is there a Statesman in the house?”

Online:

http://www.gadsdentimes.com

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Dec. 14

The Opelika-Auburn News on a proposed new cancer facility:

Few, if any of us, know what it is like to be free from the long and merciless arm of cancer.

It kills and destroys on an intimate level, or by taking someone close to us.

The disease strikes in a variety of deadly, sneaky ways, such as through breast cancer, prostate cancer, colon cancer, throat cancer, skin cancer and on and on and on.

Therefore, any way possible that provides residents in Lee County and the surrounding area a better, fighting chance to defeat the disease should be aggressively pursued, and that’s why a plan for East Alabama Medical Center to build a new, $40 million cancer center should be approved without delay.

EAMC officials have shared few details about the project because it remains in need of approval by the Alabama Health Planning and Development Agency, which must agree to a certificate of need for the project to move forward.

But need, there is, as local residents already face enough when they must take on this ugly killer called cancer. Keeping patients from having to drive to Birmingham, Atlanta or elsewhere for quality and expert care is a service that is long past due in the Auburn-Opelika area, an area that continues to see rapid growth and especially from retirement-age segments of the population relocating here.

The Opelika-Auburn News first reported plans for the new facility in its Nov. 20 edition after EAMC provided the state health agency the needed paperwork to apply.

The project would be built in Opelika at 2501 Village Professional Drive, off Dunlop Drive, which connects to U.S. 280 a few hundred feet north of its busy intersection with Pepperell Parkway. The site is only a short walking distance northwest of the main hospital campus.

“We know this would be a great benefit for the patients we serve,” a top hospital administrator said.

Agreed. Cancer, unfortunately, isn’t going to go away on its own. Making it a battle that can be waged from closer to home would be big medicine in itself.

We encourage the state’s Health Planning and Development Agency to approve this project and get the ball rolling as soon as possible, and we thank EAMC for its vision and recognition of this need.

Build the cancer center and save more lives.

We need you.

Online:

http://www.oanow.com

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Dec. 8

The Montgomery Advertiser on a white Alabama police officer charged with murder in the fatal shooting of a black man:

A Montgomery County grand jury’s decision to indict Montgomery Police Officer Aaron C. Smith on a murder charge related to Greg Gunn’s February death indicates the wheels of justice are turning as needed.

Gunn, who was black, was unarmed when Smith, who is white, stopped him for a search in Gunn’s Mobile Heights neighborhood around 3. a.m. Residents of the neighborhood had recently called police for assistance due to a number of break-ins.

What transpired next is uncertain, but Smith and Gunn were involved in a struggle, and Gunn appears to have run away. Smith gave chase. Throughout the altercation, he is said to have used a Taser on Gunn several times, tried to subdue him with his baton and ultimately shot the 58-year-old grocer multiple times. Gunn is said to have picked up or carried a long pole at some point in the encounter.

Neither Smith’s body camera or dash camera were operating.

Smith’s attorney characterizes his actions as justifiable self-defense, and he remains innocent until proven guilty. His day in court should be conducted with the utmost integrity, with all the facts laid bare. If he is found to have used unnecessary lethal force, he should be held accountable.

Where that trial will take place is unknown at present, as Smith’s attorney has also requested a change of venue outside of Montgomery County.

Wherever the case is heard and whatever the outcome, the Smith case again raises legitimate questions about the real or perceived presence of race-based bias in the nation’s criminal justice system, following multiple incidents of unarmed black persons killed by white officers since the controversial 2014 shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri.

The federal government keeps no comprehensive database of police-involved shootings and fatalities, making it hard to ascertain if racial profiling or bias does lead to needless death. Nonetheless, extensive databases compiled by media and watchdog groups have pointed to troubling disparities in the percentages of unarmed black persons, usually men, fatally shot by white police officers, compared to shootings of unarmed white persons.

Some people have the view that a disproportionate use of force against black persons is the result of the fact they commit more crimes.

But a new study by the Urban Institute and Center for Policing Equity of the Austin Police Department found that’s too simplistic an assumption and that even when controlling for other factors, such as community crime rate or income levels, race still remains a worrisome predictor of use of force.

Specifically, the review found “a one-point rise in the percentage of black residents increased the expected number of use-of-force incidents by 2.6 percent, holding all other variables constant.”

Statistics also show it’s difficult to get indictments in suspicious police shootings or to win convictions or tough sentences. That’s partly understandable, as officers have to make split-second decisions about using force in dangerous situations where their own and the public’s safety can be highly at risk.

The very secrecy of the grand jury process can contribute, as well, to suspicions that cases may be unfairly or inadequately presented by prosecutors when grand juries fail to indict.

Smith’s indictment thus reflects a step toward transparency and against the perception held by some of the public that the system is rigged against victims of police shootings.

It will be the solemn task of prosecutors, a judge and jurors to weigh Smith’s innocence or guilt, based on evidence and analysis.

Letting a court of law - rather than just the court of public opinion - figure out the truth in contentious officer-involved shootings is one way to spur the much-needed healing process between law enforcement agencies and minority communities, in Montgomery and nationwide.

Online:

http://www.montgomeryadvertiser.com

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