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​​Alabama’s Empty Prison Building Plans

Alabama has a prison overcrowding problem, with 23,000 inmates in old facilities designed to hold 13,000. The Governor proposed a plan to close 14 of 16 old prisons and replace them with four new prisons, financed by an $800 million bond repaid over 30 years. A revised plan funded three new prisons and renovations to old prisons, financed by a $775 million 30-year bond. The Alabama Senate then passed a third plan that caps the bond at $325 million, with the state building one prison if local authorities build two that would be leased back to the state for 30 years. The 30-year financing for each of these plans ignores arrest and incarceration data that clearly show that Alabama prisons will empty out over the next 30 years.  

Alabama prison data show that the inmate population ages 15 to 20 fell 72% from June 2000 to June 2016, as the number of inmates ages 21-25 fell 35%. Inmates ages 26-30 increased from 2000-2008 but fell 18% from 2008-2016, producing a net decline of 4% from 2000 to 2016. Over those same years, the inmate population ages 51-60 rose 219% and inmates over 60 rose 269%. In total, inmates under the age of 31 fell by 2,776 from 2000-2016 as inmates over 50 increased by 4,201 (see graph below for inmates by age). In 2000, 23% of all inmates were under age 26 and 7% were over 50. In 2016, 11% of inmates were under 26, and 20% were over 50.

A decline in Alabama’s total prison population over recent years has been widely attributed to sentencing reforms, including new guidelines in 2013 and criminal justice reforms passed in 2015. Reforms in 2013 and 2015 cannot explain why inmates under the age of 26 fell 1,588 from 2000-2008, down 44% for ages 15-20 and down 22% for ages 21-25. Steep declines in youth incarceration and the increasing population of older inmates are better explained by arrest trends by age from Alabama crime reports: From 1995-2015, Part 1 violent and property crime arrests fell 61% for youths under age 20 and fell 22% for ages 20-24, as Part 1 arrests increased by 112% for ages 50-54 and 115% for ages 55-60.

National trends show the same patterns. From 2001-2015, nationwide male incarceration rates fell 68% for ages 18-19 and 43% for ages 20-25, but increased 30% for ages 40-44. From 2007 to 2015, incarceration rates increased 53% for men ages 50-54 and more than 63% for ages 55-64. National arrest trends also show massive declines in youth arrest rates since the 1990s, as arrest rates for older adults have increased.

The decline in youth offending has also slashed the number of juveniles in residential correction facilities (not counted in adult prison populations). Youths committed to Alabama residential facilities fell from 2,592 in 2008 to 1,284 in 2016. The youngest juveniles showed the largest declines, with commitments down 77% for ages 12 and under, 58% for ages 13-15, 46% for ages 16-17, and 23% for ages 18 and older.

National trends show a similar pattern from 1999-2013, with youths in residential placement down 82% for ages 12 and under, 60% for ages 13-15, 41% for ages 16-17, and 40% for ages 18 and older. Steeper declines in residential placement for the youngest juveniles reflect steeper declines in offending by younger juveniles. From 1990-2015, the age 17 and under property crime arrest rate fell 76%, as the age 12 and under property crime arrest rate fell 90%. Steeper arrest rate declines for young juveniles portend ongoing declines in violent crime arrests for older youths because research shows the risk of later violent offending is greatest for juveniles first referred to juvenile court at a very young age.

These age-related arrest and incarceration trends are well known to those familiar with the research on how trends in preschool lead poisoning have affected violent and property crime trends across centuries and around the world. Even those unfamiliar with this research should realize that massive recorded declines in youth incarceration have important implications for prison planning over a 30-year time horizon. Every criminologist knows that the best predictor of whether someone will be in prison when they are older is if they have already served one or more prison terms in their late-teens or 20s, and the best predictor of whether someone goes to prison in their late-teens or 20s is if they have already served time on probation, in jail, and/or in a juvenile residential placement facility.

A 1997 Department of Justice (DOJ) report estimated the “Lifetime Likelihood of Going to State or Federal Prison” and the chance of going to prison for the first time after the age of 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, or 45. That report is still cited to support the false claim that “one of every three black American males born today can expect to go to prison in his lifetime”. The DOJ report did estimate that black boys had a 28.5% risk of going to prison “based on constant 1991 rates of first incarceration”, but we now know those rates have not been constant. From 2001 to 2015, black male incarceration rates fell 66% for ages 18-19, 53% for ages 20-24, and 48% for ages 25-29. Moreover, the “Highlights” summary of the DOJ report (reproduced below) showed that the risk of going to prison for the first time falls rapidly with age. Your lifetime risk of going to prison drops by about 10% if you haven’t made your first trip to prison by the age of 20, and your lifetime risk drops about 60% if you haven’t gone to prison by the age of 30.

The rapid decline in first incarceration risk with age means that plummeting youth incarceration is just the leading edge of declines in overall incarceration over the next 30 years. Moreover, the DOJ lifetime risk estimates were based only on State and Federal prison data, and not prior sentences to probation, juvenile placement facilities, or jails, but a separate analysis showed: “Nearly two-thirds of those admitted to prison for the first time will have been on probation and a third will have served a sentence to a local jail or juvenile facility”.

Adults on probation fell 12% from 2007 to 2015. Juveniles sentenced to probation fell 44% from 1997 to 2013. Youths in residential placement fell 53% from 2000 to 2014. Jail admissions fell by 20% from 2008 to 2015, and the number of juveniles in jail fell 54% from 2000 to 2015. In 2007 the national jail population was above 95% of national rated jail capacity, but the jail population was less than 80% of rated jail capacity in 2015.

These correctional population trends all show that no state should be building new prisons, or signing long-term prison leases, because those prisons will be emptying out before any 30-year financing plan is paid off. Fortunately, a group of lawmakers in the Alabama House are pushing a fourth plan to reduce Alabama prison crowding by making better use of county jails that have a lot of empty beds. Proponents of this plan claim the State prison population could be quickly reduced to less than 14,000 by housing more prisoners in county facilities, with funding covered by a $50 million bond issue that has already been approved. This plan could provide immediate relief from prison overcrowding, whereas the Governor’s plan anticipated taking three years to build a new prison.

In addition to shifting state prisoners to county jails, Alabama should also shift young inmates from prisons to juvenile facilities. Youths ages 18 and older accounted for 15% of all USA youths in residential placement in 2013, but accounted for just 5% of Alabama residential placement commitments in 2016. Alabama state prisons held 390 youths under 21 and 2,907 youths ages 21-25 in 2016, so with commitments to Alabama juvenile facilities down from 2,592 in 2008 to 1,284 in 2016 those residential facilities likely have enough excess capacity to house all Alabama prisoners under 21 and many of the prisoners in their early-20s.

Bryan Stevenson, head of the Equal Justice Initiative based in Montgomery, says that serious problems in Alabama prisons need to be addressed not with new prisons but “through better classification, through better services and better management”. Better management is already in place at the Alabama Department of Youth Services (DYS): “Advocates on the state and national levels have praised the progress Alabama has made in reforming its juvenile justice system.” Common sense also argues that prisoners ages 18-20 would be better classified as young offenders and placed in facilities housing youths ages 15-17, as opposed to Alabama prisons where almost 60% of inmates are now over the age of 36. Perhaps most importantly, better services especially needed for young offenders include education services. The DYS School District provides education services to youths in DYS institutional programs, including GED programs for students who are 17 years or older. The nationwide percent of age 16-24 youths who are not in school and have not received a regular diploma or GED (status dropouts) fell from 11.4% in 1994 to 5.9% in 2015 (another benefit of lead poisoning prevention), but the status dropout rate for age 16-24 youths in correctional institutions was over 33% in 2014.

Another bill just passed by the Alabama Senate would require the Department of Corrections to publish an annual list of inmates who have been in an infirmary or physician’s care for over 30 days, and evaluate their eligibility for a medical release from prison based on terminal illness, inability to perform basic functions (breathing, toileting, eating, walking or bathing) and such limited mental or physical ability that they don’t pose any threat to the public. This bill could substantially reduce the fastest growing segment of the prison population – old prisoners. The nationwide mortality rate for state prisoners over age 55 was 1.6% in 2014. Federal and state recidivism data show that many of those inmates who died in prison could have been granted medical releases without posing any substantial risk to public safety.

Data on recidivism of federal prisoners show that inmates released after the age of 60 had a 16% arrest rate and 8% conviction rate over eight years following their release. This was one quarter of the recidivism rate for prisoners released before age 36 and less than half the risk for inmates released at ages 41-50. These recidivism rates count any felony, misdemeanor, and “technical” violation of the conditions of supervision, so many incidents counted as recidivism would not pose any real threat to the public. Prisoners who died during the 8-year time period after release were also excluded from the analysis, which means that the analysis excluded the lower risk for inmates released after age 60 who were in such poor health that they lived for less than eight years after their release.

In California, a Stanford University study reports that only five out of 860 murderers paroled from 1995 to 2010 had returned to jail or prison for new felonies since their release. This 0.6% recommitment rate compares with an overall California released prisoner recommitment rate of 48.7%. The much lower rate for those paroled from life sentences is generally attributed to their average age at release being over 50. In Louisiana, a governor's task force report recently recommended that prisoners with life sentences be eligible for parole after serving 30 years in prison and reaching age 50, unless they were convicted of first-degree murder. Every state needs to reconsider their “life means life” position on prison sentences, or be prepared for a tidal wave of deaths in prison over the next 30 years. If the real reason for keeping an inmate in prison after age 60 is retribution, not public safety, then more people need to consider the overwhelming evidence that the first crime that sent most prisoners down the path to prison was the crime of lead poisoning.