Alabama is making a costly mistake on COVID-19 recovery funds. Here’s a better path forward.

When the Alabama legislature gathered for a special session in September, it made a short-sighted and costly mistake. Lawmakers chose to allocate $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) money—about 20% of Alabama’s federal COVID-19 relief funds—to help finance a $1.3 billion prison construction plan.

Alabama prisons are decrepit, dangerous, and massively overcrowded to such an extent that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has sued the state over the unconstitutional conditions. Raiding funds designed to help people and communities recover from pandemic-related economic distress will do nothing to make Alabama more humane and inclusive, particularly when Black Alabamians are three times more likely to be incarcerated than white Alabamians due to discriminatory practices in policing and incarceration.

The state has a better path to build a more sensible criminal justice system and avert a potential federal takeover. New buildings to house the same old problems won’t get us there. Real change will require meaningful changes to sentencing and reentry policies.

Sentencing reform is vital to build a more humane criminal justice system in Alabama

Alabama’s sentencing scheme still relies on outdated ideas about punishment and limits availability of services shown to improve reentry. One example is the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), which increases sentences for even minor offenses. Like other mandatory minimum laws, it is a relic of earlier racially motivated “tough on crime” practices and leads to higher rates of incarceration throughout the South.

The state legislature made minor improvements to the HFOA in 2015 but refused to make them retroactive. That failure has left hundreds of Alabamians still serving sentences for convictions that today would result in less time under current presumptive sentencing guidelines.

Those of us at Alabama Arise support full repeal of the broken HFOA. Until then, the state—at minimum—should ensure people aren’t serving wildly different sentences for the same conviction.

Those efforts have proved to be an uphill battle for reform advocates. During September’s special session, lawmakers failed to pass a bill to allow some people to petition for resentencing under current standards. Legislators also have failed in recent years to expand medical release and releases for elderly people who have aged out of reasonable likelihood of recidivism. Efforts to expand and improve diversion programs have stalled as well.

All these policies would save Alabama money in the long run. They also would demonstrate respect for the humanity of incarcerated people. But legislators have chosen not to act.

This persistent refusal to engage in meaningful reform could severely cost Alabama. Failure to take even small steps to reduce overcrowding and improve atrocious conditions may spur DOJ to conduct a wholesale takeover of the state’s prison system. If that happens, the legislature will have only its own inaction to blame.

How federal aid should help Alabamians

The consequences of prioritizing bad spending go beyond federal intervention in the broken prison system. ARPA relief funds represent an opportunity to move Alabama forward in many areas that would increase opportunity and stability for people across the state.

Provide health care to hundreds of thousands of uninsured Alabamians

More than 220,000 Alabamians live in a Medicaid coverage gap. They make too much to qualify for Medicaid under the state’s bare-bones eligibility limits but too little to qualify for subsidized coverage through the Affordable Care Act. Another 120,000 Alabamians have stretched their finances to pay for coverage they can’t truly afford.

Federal ARPA funds would allow Alabama to expand Medicaid. Alabama could use these dollars to meet other critical spending priorities. This would free up state funds to pay for the startup of an expanded Medicaid program to cover adults left out of coverage.

Update infrastructure and invest in equity

Alabama should use ARPA funds to update and expand infrastructure and support services. Economic fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic has placed a disproportionately heavy burden on women, Black Alabamians, and communities with few resources upon which to fall back. Investments in child care, expanded early childhood education, and long-term postpartum health coverage would deliver major improvements in quality of life for people hit hardest during the pandemic.

Federal relief should be used both to lessen the pandemic’s immediate harm and to break the pattern of long-term, intentional disinvestment in the Black Belt and other areas. Community-based organizations offer valuable connections and expertise to guide investment to where it is needed. The state should ensure these groups have the capacity and pathways to provide input on best uses for relief money.

Finish implementing solutions on housing and public transportation

ARPA funds also represent an opportunity to take steps forward where lack of political will has hindered full implementation of state solutions. Within the past decade, the legislature created both the Public Transportation Trust Fund and the Affordable Housing Trust Fund (AHTF). But it has failed to provide a single dollar for either.

Transportation investment would improve quality of life for everyone. Robust public transit creates long-term, high-wage jobs and enables people to travel to work reliably and inexpensively. It is a vital public good that helps the elderly and people with disabilities fully participate in public life.

Housing investment would help alleviate the state’s severe affordable housing shortage. State AHTF funding would increase community resilience by allowing struggling families to spend less of their incomes to keep a roof over their heads. It also could help speed up rental assistance and prevent evictions during future recessions.

Increase transparency and modernize technology

Alabama’s technological infrastructure has lagging contemporary standards. Early in the pandemic, this resulted in major delays of unemployment insurance payments. The patchwork of IT systems at all levels of state government has contributed to public confusion and delays. Technology investments would reduce duplication of effort and increase access to public information.

A new path forward

ARPA funds provide a generational opportunity to begin remedying policy shortcomings that have held back progress and perpetuated inequality in many states. For example, advocates in other Southern states such as Oklahoma and West Virginia are developing proposals to use the unprecedented number of resources to address the over-policing and incarceration of Black and Brown communities. For Alabama, now is an opportunity to undo some of the damage of the state’s history of racist policy choices. This chance is too valuable to waste by doubling down on past failures like overly punitive criminal justice policy.

The legislature’s recent misuse of $400 million is inexcusable, but this bad decision has not blocked the path forward. The remaining ARPA funds are a chance to invest in adequate resources and transparent, responsive government. Our state must seize this opportunity to improve life significantly for every Alabamian.