- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Recent editorials from Alabama newspapers:

May 5

Anniston (Alabama) Star on comparing Alabama and Virginia in their approach to the death penalty:

Virginia’s death row houses eight inmates.

Alabama’s houses 191.

The difference is stark, a comparison of two Southern states with seemingly contrasting views about death penalty cases. Alabama lawmakers who support state-sponsored executions could learn a thing or two from Virginia.

Twelve years ago, Virginia state officials opened a series of regional offices that provide death-penalty defendants with legitimate representation. In those offices are lawyers with death-penalty case experience, mitigation experts and investigators, Mother Jones magazine reported this week. Instead of relying on underpaid - and often inexperienced - defense attorneys hired by the state, defendants in Virginia began receiving competent counsel.

“Indeed, the number of new death sentences (in Virginia) dropped from six to two in a single year, and has not exceeded that since,” Mother Jones wrote.

Virginia has adopted a format that (a.) sends only the worst among us to death row, (b.) ensures that capital cases are properly represented and (c.) saves the state millions of dollars each year by reducing its death-row population.

Virginia is a death-penalty state that gets it. If you’re going to have state-sanctioned killings, they should only be done in the most extreme cases.

That description doesn’t apply to Alabama, which owns the nation’s fourth-highest death-row population. By and large, Alabama defendants facing the death penalty have long received suspect representation. The state also has had two recent cases of exoneration of death-row inmates based on new or existing evidence.

The death penalty is an awful form of justice. But if Alabama is going to have it, it ought to copy Virginia’s model.




May 6

Dothan (Alabama) Eagle on the state’s General Fund shortfall:

Gov. Robert Bentley was in Dothan on Monday, speaking from the state troopers’ station - one of several targeted for closure in a massive cutback of state services threatened if lawmakers don’t approve the governor’s plan to raise $541 million to correct a revenue shortfall in the state’s General Fund.

It’s about “optics,” to use a word from the politicians’ thesaurus, and delivering his remarks from a threatened trooper station should make the doom-and-gloom saber-rattling resonate.

However, Bentley is dead right about the urgent need to address Alabama’s chronic budget woes with sustainable revenue, but it appears that lawmakers haven’t seen the light. Few of Bentley’s proposals have been considered, and those that have are being considered in drastically reduced form. For instance, a House Ways and Means committee took up the governor’s proposal to raise tax on cigarettes by 82 cents per pack, but not before it revised the plan to a 25-cent bump.

On Tuesday, Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh held his own press conference to announce his plan to introduce legislation to authorize a lottery and casino gaming at the four locations where Alabama first dipped its toes into the gambling stream with pari-mutuel betting at dog tracks in Macon and Greene counties, Mobile and Birmingham.

More and more states are turning to gambling to shore up their budgets; that doesn’t mean it’s the best strategy.

However, if the legislature chooses to take this route, and if Alabama voters are intent on validating the decision at the ballot box, it is blatantly unfair to limit the expansion to the four establishments tapped for state-approved casinos while other similar sites, such as Houston County’s white elephant, the former Country Crossing Bingo Hall, are left in the cold.




May 6

Decatur (Alabama) Daily on prison reform:

State lawmakers have a lot on their plate to finish this legislative session - none bigger than prison reform - but the investment the state will make to take the strain off our system will be a wise one.

Alabama’s prisons reform bill does not stir public emotions as much as some of the other legislation being considered in Montgomery this session. But it could wind up being the second-most important decision our lawmakers face this year, surpassed in urgency only by the budget.

The reasons it is important are far more than financial, which always gets more traction than ethical concerns that tend to be painted as soft on crime. But the reason this lengthy and complicated bill is bound to pass is financial - even though in its current form it will require a $26 million annual investment for five years.

Alabama long has feared a federal takeover of its state prisons, which are built to hold 13,300 prisoners but currently hold about 26,000 and do not have a good record of providing health care or safety.

Alabama spends $15,500 per prisoner annually, The Decatur Daily reported this year. That’s less than every state other than Indiana and Kentucky in a study of 44 that provided statistics to the Vera Institute of Justice. (Mississippi, Tennessee and South Carolina were among the six that did not contribute data.)

Alabama’s prisons are notorious. Not only are they overfilled and underfunded, Alabama prisoners die at a rate almost twice the national average.

That said, the problem in our state is far from unique. American taxpayers spend $74 billion - more than the GDP of 133 countries - to keep our convicts and detainees behind bars. Private corporations that manage prisons turn a profit upward of $5 billion a year, according to financial analytics website SmartAsset.com.

So Alabama has a chance to be a leader in reversing one of the country’s biggest failures - our so-called war on drugs.

President Richard Nixon declared the war in 1971, bringing mandatory drug sentences that grew the national prison population from 400,000 to a peak of 2.4 million by 2012. It has dropped to 2.2 million today.

Another 4.8 million are on parole or probation, and counting juvenile detention, about 7 million Americans are supervised by corrections officials. If it’s not obvious we have a serious problem, what does it take?

Alabama is typical of the problem - more prisoners than it can house, 67 percent of whom are drug and property-crime offenders. Even though sentencing improvements are being made, many prisoners sentenced during the “tough-on-crime” era remain and are growing old. The cost of caring for aging prisoners only raises the expense to taxpayers.

It’s time to make sweeping changes to the criminal justice system. Our state leaders are recognizing that small-time drug offenders and burglars can become taxpayers, rather than being lumped in with murderers, rapists and armed robbers.

Shorter prison sentences and emphasis on rehabilitation and education skills are good steps. Few ideas in Montgomery this year are as clearly a wise investment.



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