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Prison: An Entitlement System?

According to a recent computer analysis, Alabama's prison population has tripled since 1980, but the state's crime rate has remained the same. A Birmingham News analysis of Corrections Department statistics and census records show that nearly one of every 167 Alabamans older than 14 are in a state prison. Alabama's imprisonment rate is the eighth highest in the nation, said Penn State University criminologist Darrell Steffensmeier, a national expert on sentencing. "You guys love to lock people up in the South," Steffensmeier said.

Alabama Corrections Commissioner Ron Jones, who gained worldwide attention for reinstating chain gangs, has a different take on the situation. "Twenty years ago, you'd be hard-pressed to find an inmate in our prison system who would have been back a third time. Today a tenth time is common," he said. "What happened? We created a classic entitlement parasite for whom prisons is just one more entitlement system. You get free education, you get free meals, you get free this and free that."

Perhaps the Alabama legislature should be blamed for making it too easy, especially for urban poor, to gain access to the state prison entitlement system. Alabama has a two-year mandatory minimum sentence for drug sales; five years are added if the sale is made within three miles of a school or housing project; and an additional five years is added if it occurs within three miles of both. This means that a person could receive a 12-year sentence for selling any amount of drugs almost anywhere in an urban area such as Birmingham - particularly anywhere within three miles of a housing project.

Of the 20,000 people in Alabama prisons in November of 1995, 3,473 were drug offenders, compared to 900 ten years ago.

Sources: Corrections Digest, et al

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