Something we can surely agree on

Richard Schmidt Living and Learning
Posted 7/2/13

We’re so accustomed to arguing — about immigration, health care, China policy, education reform — that we might think there’s nothing we can agree on. Wrong!

Small-government conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals can surely stand …

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Something we can surely agree on


We’re so accustomed to arguing — about immigration, health care, China policy, education reform — that we might think there’s nothing we can agree on. Wrong!

Small-government conservatives and bleeding-heart liberals can surely stand together on one thing: the need for prison reform.

Conservatives support prison reform because it’s an expensive government program that doesn’t accomplish what it was meant to. Government boondoggles irk conservatives.

The United States imprisons a higher percentage of its population than any other nation in the world, at 514 inmates for every 100,000 people (North Korea’s figure may be higher, but they keep it secret). The comparable figure is 148 per 100,000 people in England, 114 in Canada, 54 in Japan, and 30 in India. Do we want to be the world’s number one a police state?

Moreover, Alabama has the fifth highest rate of incarceration among the 50 states, at 634 prisoners per 100,000 people. That’s one person locked up for every 157 citizens of our state. (Louisiana has the highest incarceration rate, at 854 per 100,000, and Maine the lowest, at 151.)

Keeping all those people behind bars is expensive. Alabamians are paying $365 million in taxes in 2013 to maintain 34 state prisons and correctional facilities. That’s 21 percent of the state’s General Fund budget (everything but education is in the General Fund budget).

Mindful of the huge costs of operating prisons, the state seeks to minimize expenditures, but those efforts are often counter-productive. In recent years, education and rehabilitation programs inside prisons have been curtailed or eliminated. The result: when an inmate is released, he is less likely to be employable. This leads to repeat offenders and more trials and convictions, costing the state still more money. Our prisons have revolving doors.

Our criminal justice system is anti-family. By sending people to prison for years, we break up nuclear families and deny the incarcerated the means to support their dependents, who then end up on welfare, which perpetuates another big government program.

If we want lower taxes and smaller government and if we want to support families, prison reform is a good place to start. That’s why conservatives support prison reform.

What about liberals?

Liberals like to advocate for victims. The victims of crime have a strong voice in Montgomery, as they should. An organization representing victims of crime is located just down the hall from the state attorney general’s office in Montgomery. Their voices are heard.

But offenders are also victims — of an underfunded, overcrowded prison system for sure, and often of childhood abuse, bad parenting, and a poor schooling before that. They have little or no voice in Montgomery.

Once a month I drive to Atmore to lead a worship service for the Episcopal inmates at the G. K. Fountain state correctional facility there. I also correspond with several prison inmates in other states.

I know more than I want to know about what happens behind those walls. Some prison inmates are by nature deceptive and manipulative, and nothing they say is to be taken at face value. Some guards are abusive and crooked. Horrific things are done to people in prisons.

Despite all this, some inmates do come to their senses and repent (the word penitentiary suggests that’s what prison is supposed to lead to). The Department of Corrections, against long odds, succeeds in “correcting” some people.

Two of these men and one woman have written Christian devotional literature, some of which I published when I edited a devotional magazine a few years ago. They are, as one of them recently wrote, “the least, the last, and the lost,” something they have in common with Jesus. Their courage, humility, and honesty exceeds that of many people who have never seen the inside of a barbed-wire fence.

Liberals believe in mercy and second chances. They see people as redeemable. So liberals, like conservatives, endorse prison reform.

I’d begin by enacting legislation to deal with non-violent offenders in ways less costly than incarceration. Then I’d reinstate programs to teach marketable skills to inmates. And finally, I’d create a parole process designed to free inmates who have been rehabilitated and no longer need to be wards of the state.

Can we agree on that?

Richard H. Schmidt is a retired Episcopal priest, editor and author who lives in Fairhope. He can be reached at