Monday, April 28, 2014

We must find a solution for our broken prison system

The United States incarcerates its citizens at a higher rate than any other nation in the world.

As a percent of the total population, there are more Americans in prison than in Russia, North Korea, Syria or Iran.

These tough on crime" policies that began with the War on Drugs have led to a higher prison population than we ever planned for, which has caused prison overcrowding, budget strains and a growing segment of the population with a criminal record, rendering them unable to get a job or find housing.

Here in Alabama, our prisons hold 28,000 people, when they were built to only hold 14,000. As a result of this overcrowding, our prison budget is strained and stretched--we spend only $26 per day per inmate, whereas the national average is $62 per day.

As a state, we have some tough decisions to make. We can't keep operating under the status quo.

Option one is that we continue at the current rate of incarceration and find an additional source of revenue to adequately fund our prison systems.

Option two is to find a way to reduce the prison population so that the Department of Corrections can operate under the ideal budget.

Now, I will not ever advocate for murderers, rapists, child abusers, or other violent offenders to be allowed back into our communities until they have served their time, but there are a lot of non-violent offenders in our prisons who could benefit from the opportunity to make a change for the better.

Many of our neighbors who are locked in prisons come from underprivileged communities, broken homes and poor schools. Rather than incarcerate them and make it more difficult to rehabilitate when they are released, why don't we begin the rehabilitation process as soon as possible?

Not only should we work to educate those who are starting down the road to a life of crime, but we should work to give them the tools and skills necessary to escape the vicious cycle.

And this shouldn't start after they're already in the system.

Our children need the opportunity to learn in a five-star classroom. They need the resources to pursue a college degree or technical training. They need to know they are worth more and deserve better than an orange jumpsuit and an inmate number.

It's time we stop determining the number of beds we will need in our prisons by third-grade literacy rates.

When we invest in the future for the next generation by treating all children like they have an unlimited amount of God-given potential, we will reduce the incarceration rates for the next generation.

When we offer opportunities for young men and women to break the cycle of poverty, drugs and violence, we will reduce the incarceration rates for this generation.

And when we fund our prisons as centers for rehabilitation, not just holding cells, we will see the recidivism rates decline and prison population decrease.

However we address it, we must make this change. We must tip the funding from prisons to education. We must break this cycle.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Alabama must embrace a spirit of new energy to tackle tough issues

Easter is a special type of holiday because it comes with a sense of new energy, new beginnings and new growth. Easter is a chance to challenge ourselves to find things in that are broken and dead that need rebirth. It is our chance to find those things in our life that need new life, to find things in our communities that need revitalization and in our state that need renewal. 

We all wrestle with our personal fears, anxieties, concerns and unrest. But we as a community also wrestle with these same issues.

We, as a state, have problems and concerns that need to be addressed through a renewal process. We have old issues that need new solutions, and we have new problems that need creative, innovative solutions.

Alabama is one of the least developed states in the nation. One-third of Alabamians have no Internet access. There are roads and bridges that have fallen into disrepair. Alabama has no comprehensive public transportation system like in our neighboring states and no plans to restructure the tax code to be able to build one. These issues are not our state's top priority.

Alabama has the second highest incarceration rate in the nation. The list of abuses at Tutwiler Prison grows longer each day, running the risk of a federal takeover. Yet we still refuse to adequately fund our prison system or reform the criminal code because the prisoners are not our state's top priority either.

Alabama is one of the most unhealthy states in the nation, ranking 47th in overall health. Half of Alabama's babies are born on Medicaid and hundreds of thousands of people remain ineligible for health care because the Governor is refusing to expand Medicaid or set up a state exchange under the Affordable Care Act. Access to health care is still not a top priority for Alabama lawmakers.

Alabama's education system consistently ranks near the bottom of the barrel. Access to pre-k education is minimal, merit-based scholarships are few and our teachers are leaving the profession or going to work in other states.  Meanwhile, we're taking $40 million out of public education to send a handful of students to private schools and denying teachers the cost of living increase they were promised. These issues still are not priorities for Alabama.

These issues barely scratch the surface of those concerns that our government should choose to improve. It's time for Alabama to become the best in the nation at something other than football. It's time for Alabama to dream big. We need to take on these issues head first and develop comprehensive solutions to leave Alabama better and brighter than we inherited it.

We've left these issues on the table because of fears, anxieties and concerns from lawmakers, businessmen, lobbyists and voters. But we cannot continue to kick the can down the road. I have faith in Alabama.  I have faith in our ability to dream big and move forward without fear. It's time to demand the Governor and the Alabama Legislature do the same.

Monday, April 14, 2014

We can learn from Holy Week: Love one another

On Sunday, we gathered together at church to celebrate Palm Sunday, marking the day Jesus rode into Jerusalem and began his journey to the cross. Holy Week, the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, is one of the more symbolic and important weeks of our Christian faith, giving us several lessons we should take forward into the rest of the year.

The first day of Holy Week, Palm Sunday, is when Jesus came into Jerusalem, but he rode in humbly, on a donkey.

Thursday marks the Last Supper, the day when Jesus brought his disciples together, gave them the first Holy Eucharist, and washed their feet, knowing he would be crucified the next day. 

On Good Friday, we remember His death. We remember his walk to Calvary, the abuse and the pain, and we mourn the loss of Jesus.  

Then on Saturday, we wait. We wait because we know the best is yet to come, and on Easter Sunday, the stone is rolled back and the tomb is empty. The Lord has Risen. 

Holy Week is an emotional week, but we should take a few lessons away as we move forward.

Jesus rode into town on a donkey. He humbled himself to wash the feet of his disciples. You see, Jesus had no respect for the material wealth of this world--his calling was to bring light and love to the least of these. It was on Maundy Thursday that Jesus gave the disciples the last commandment--to "love one another as I have loved you."

Jesus didn't say "love those who come from privilege," or "love those who have never made mistakes." Jesus said to "love one another as I have loved you." Definitively, and without question, Jesus commands us to love one another.

And we carry that commandment forward into Good Friday as we watch the physical manifestation of that love.  They beat Him, ridiculed Him, and they hung Him from the cross, where he died for you.

Yet on Saturday, we can wake up with a new hope--with a hope that what is died will return to life and what is broken will be fixed. We can wait in faith that Jesus will return.

And as Easter Sunday arrives, our sins are forgiven and we embrace the promise of new life.

Not one of us is without sin or without wrongdoing, but Easter reminds us of the promise of new life--the promise of change, the promise of renewal. 

As we move forward into Holy Week, think about the things in your life, in your community and in this state and nation that are broken but will be fixed. Will faith alone fix them, or must we act in the way Jesus has commanded us--by first loving one another as He has loved us?

Monday, April 7, 2014

Governor Bentley needs to send the legislature to summer school

The Legislature has officially adjourned for 2014, leaving the Governor with a tough decision to make by April 13. 

On March 5, Governor Bentley came out strong in support of teachers, saying that he would veto an education budget that did not include a two-percent teacher pay raise and full funding for PEEHIP, the teacher's health insurance program.

But Representative Bill Poole and Senator Trip Pittman, the chairs of the Education budget committees, maintained that the money was simply not available to fund PEEHIP and offer the teachers a raise. 

This budget debate is not unfamiliar to the Alabama Legislature. From 2011 to 2013, the Republicans in the legislature cut teachers' pay by 2.5 percent, before putting two percent back last year and calling it a "raise."

I don't know who taught them math, but my teachers taught me that taking away 2.5 percent, then adding two percent is still a loss of one-half percent.

A two percent raise this year would have amounted to a 1.5 percent raise over the last four years. 

Now, we fast forward to April 8, 2014 when Governor Bentley has an education budget on his desk that does not include a teacher pay raise or full funding for PEEHIP.

If the Governor chooses to fight for the pay raise, he will have to call a special session of the legislature and bring everyone back to Montgomery at a time when many have primary races they are concerned about winning.  Furthermore, a special session would cost the taxpayers a tremendous amount of money. Because it only requires a simple majority vote to override the Governor's veto, Bentley is sure to be silenced by the Hubbard-Marsh faction.

But does that mean he shouldn't stand up to do what he promised our educators?

When Governor Bentley threatened to veto the budget, it was like a school teacher threatening a student with detention if they broke the rules again. As soon as the teacher makes that threat, he or she is obligated to uphold it or the students will realize they can get away with anything.  On the other hand, when the students know you mean business they won't challenge your rules.

Too many times, Bentley has let the legislature ignore his threats and break the rules. Speaker Hubbard and Senate President Marsh have no respect for the Governor. If they did, they wouldn't have challenged him on his budget requests. 

By sending him a budget with nothing he asked for, they have turned their noses up at his office and told him that what he wants doesn't matter. And that's not right.

If Bentley wants another term as Governor, he must learn now to stand up for both the office of Governor and his policies as Governor. He must hold himself to the authority that his title commands, instead of shrinking away at signs of conflict. 

Governor Bentley must give the budget back with a failing grade. He must send  the legislature to Summer School until they get it right. If he doesn't do it now, he's asking for another term with no respect and no authority in the legislative process.