- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

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July 3

The Tuscaloosa News on U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordering Alabama to improve conditions in its prison system:

Providing services for criminals is never a popular political position. Hardworking taxpayers, faced with an increasingly unstable economic environment, stagnant wages, and a rising cost of living, look on while politicians in Washington argue over the future of their health care. It is no wonder that those who try to make a living in accordance with societal norms and within the law don’t want to hear that more of their tax dollars need to go to provide for those who have been convicted of breaking the law.

It is easy to dismiss the needs of convicted criminals when so many who aren’t housed behind bars have so many needs of their own. But it is increasingly apparent that by refusing to pay for better treatment of prisoners, the citizens of Alabama are setting themselves up for a much bigger tab in the future.

Our state prisons are so overcrowded that a federal takeover of our prison system is not an idle threat. It happened in 2011 in California, where the federal government demanded that 46,000 prisoners be released early to ease overcrowding. California taxpayers are still feeling the pain of federal oversight as that state works to bring its prison system into compliance.

Last week, U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson issued a scathing 302-page decision against the state, ordering Alabama to improve conditions in its prison system, particularly care for inmates with mental illnesses. Thompson declared that Alabama’s lack of care and services for inmates with psychiatric problems is “horrendously inadequate.”

Lawmakers estimate it will cost $25 million more each year to provide the improvements in mental health care. And that doesn’t even begin to address the overcrowding issue. Alabama prisons are estimated to be at 173 percent of capacity and staffing levels are at about half of what they should be.

The judge cited a “skyrocketing suicide rate.” Meanwhile, inmates and correctional officers are the victims of violent attacks at an alarming rate.

By not providing adequate mental health care, drug counseling and job training or educational opportunities, the state is guaranteeing that an increasingly large number of inmates, after completing their existing sentences, will return to the prison system.

The biggest impact is felt in local communities, where sheriff’s offices and local jails see the revolving door firsthand. With fewer spaces available, that’s going to get worse.

It was already past time for the Legislature to enact comprehensive prison reform. Now, with Thompson’s ruling, lawmakers have no choice. Building new prisons won’t be enough. The state needs a plan that addresses mental health care. It needs a change in policy so that drug addiction, a root cause of many other crimes, is treated as a health care issue instead of strictly a criminal offense. And it needs programs that give inmates, once they leave prison, a chance to become productive members of society.

This time, the Legislature can’t afford to do the bare minimum, or the costs are going to continue to grow.

Online: http://www.tuscaloosanews.com/

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July 5

The Gadsden Times on Blue Cross Blue Shield’s release of a nationwide study that ranks Alabama No. 1 in the nation in opioids prescribed in 2015:

We’re going to talk about Alabama being No. 1 in something.

We wish we could do it positively, like praising a significant educational or economic accomplishment, or even shaking a pompom at another championship season by one of the state’s college football teams.

That’s not possible, because this particular ranking is nothing to celebrate or be proud of. A more fitting response would be to cover one’s face with either a real or metaphoric paper bag in shame.

Blue Cross Blue Shield last week released the results of a comprehensive, nationwide study of medical claims from its members who use opioid painkillers, and of members who were diagnosed with opioid use disorder.

BCBS insures 106 million Americans, roughly a third of the country’s population. This wasn’t a small sample (although members diagnosed with cancer or receiving palliative care weren’t included).

The study also covered a seven-year period, from 2010 to 2016 inclusive. This wasn’t a quick scan of some data.

Nationally, the number of BCBS members diagnosed with opioid abuse disorder increased by 492 percent during that time frame. Alabama, unfortunately, leads the way, ranking No. 1 in the nation in opioids prescribed in 2015 according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Consider this gem from that data: Alabama doctors wrote 5.8 million prescriptions for opioids in 2015. The state’s population that year was estimated at 4.859 million. That’s roughly 1.2 opioid pills for every man, woman, child and infant in Alabama.

BCBS found in its study that in Alabama:

. 26 percent of its members filled at least one opioid prescription in 2015, 5 percent above the national average.

. 6.5 percent of its members were on long-duration opioid regimens that year, again topping the national rate of 3.8 percent.

Online: http://www.gadsdentimes.com/

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July 8

The Dothan Eagle on a report revealing Alabama’s corrections department logged $26.6 million of overtime in 2016:

Every year, Alabama lawmakers head to Montgomery for the regular legislative session, where the top priority is to establish a budget to fund the operation of the state and the operation of the state’s public education.

Ideally, it would be a matter of determining within an accurate projection what the state’s revenues are expected to be, and determining what the costs of operating government services are expected to be. Lawmakers can then work out how to distribute the money.

In Alabama, that system is broken. The state’s expenditures always exceed projected revenues. But instead of doing the difficult work of creating additional revenue and/or bringing down expenses, lawmakers routinely create a lot of noise about how the sky is falling, revenue-wise, before finding a pot of money somewhere that will keep the ship of state afloat for another few months.

Then the whole dance begins anew.

A recent report from the Decatur Daily reveals the sort of fiscal boneheadery that logic produces. The Daily looked into the state’s spending on overtime pay and found that the state Department of Corrections logged a whopping $26.6 million in overtime in 2016, and is trending toward spending more on overtime this year.

The report also found that DOC prison staffing is below 50 percent while prison occupancy is at almost double capacity. That means the DOC is managing twice as many inmates as it should with half as many correctional officers. That in itself is a recipe for disaster, which is why the state prison system is on the verge of being taken over by the federal government.

It’s also a money pit.

Lawmakers have weighed the possibility of floating an $800 million bond issue to build new prisons that some say can be operated more efficiently with less staff. However, the real cost would likely exceed $1 billion, or roughly 40 years of 2016’s DOC overtime expenses.

The flawed prison building plan failed to pass.

Legislators should start now to brainstorm plans that would fix Alabama’s chronic budget woes once and for all, and should start with establishing more cost-effective ways of staffing crucial services than simply allowing overtime expenses to skyrocket.

Online: http://www.dothaneagle.com/

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