Right on Crime signatory Newt Gingrich joined up with Alabama State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh to advocate for that state’s new prison reform bill.

As conservatives, we believe that keeping the public safe is a primary duty of government.

As leaders of legislative bodies, one as Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and the other President Pro Tempore of the Alabama State Senate, we applied conservative principles to the criminal justice system, giving the agencies the authority and the resources to keep our neighborhoods safe.The success of these policies can be seen in our crime rates, which are lower than they have been in decades.

However, this progress is threatened by severe overcrowding in our state prisons. Alabama has the most crowded state-operated prison facilities in the United States, holding almost twice the prisoners they were designed for.

To accommodate the growing number of inmates the state has had to cobble together contracts with private prisons and other temporary Band-aid solutions. These quick fixes have proven very costly for the taxpayers, and made administering the patchwork of prisons very difficult.

With the prisons at 195 percent of capacity, all available space has been converted to beds, leaving little room for classes and activities in which the inmates are prepared for release. These programs have been shown to help offenders make good choices and stay on the straight and narrow after they are released.

Crowded conditions also increase tensions, which increases danger for staff, inmates and volunteers. This atmosphere is not conducive to developing the new skills and moral outlook to help them become good neighbors.

Not only does the crisis in Alabama prisons threaten public safety, it also may open the door to federal courts taking over management of the prison system. This would remove control of prison policies and spending from the hands of our elected state leaders and place it in control of unelected judges.

That is what happened in California and prison costs have skyrocketed, and we don’t want that to happen here.

Over the past year, Alabama lawmakers, leaders in the criminal justice system, local and state judges, district attorneys, victims’ rights groups and others worked together on the Prison Reform Task Force to develop a new plan to reduce recidivism and maximize this prison space for the most violent and dangerous offenders.

The Task Force enlisted the help of the experts at Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center to assess the current situation and develop workable solutions, as CSG’s experts have done successfully in other states in similar situations. The task force adopted CSG’s policy recommendations which were based on solid data and programs that have proven to be effective.

Senator Cam Ward of Alabaster, who led the task force effort, has introduced legislation to implement the recommendations. His bill would prioritize costly prison beds for violent and dangerous offenders, and would provide drug treatment and mental health services, which are proven to be effective at reducing repeat offenses.

The legislation would require that offenders be supervised for mandatory periods after being released from prison. Mandatory supervision has been shown to reduce the number of offenders returning to prison, making our communities safer and reducing the pressure on our prisons.

These reforms will assist victims by improving the system for notifying them when their offender is going to be released.

The Task Force’s recommendations should be a high priority for the legislature. Senator Ward described the objectives of the reforms, “improve public safety, institute measures for accountability and cost-efficiency, and foster a heightened level of personal responsibility from any individual who passes through the system.”

Make no mistake, the plan will not result in a mass release of convicted criminals into society and it will not compromise the punishments imposed on criminals now or in the future. Instead it will ensure that Alabama has adequate prison space to see that those found guilty of crimes under Alabama law can and will be punished appropriately.

If the legislature fails to pass these reforms to reduce the pressure of overcrowding, the costs of Alabama’s prison system will continue to increase dramatically, drawing greater and greater resources that could be spent on schools, roads and other state priorities.

As conservatives we urge the legislature to take these important steps to contain our out-of-control corrections spending while keeping our people safe.


Newt Gingrich is the former speaker of the U.S. House, a one-time Republican presidential candidate and a signatory of Right on Crime. Sen. Del Marsh is president pro tempore of the Alabama Senate. Originally posted at Al.com