Two weeks ago, on a Friday morning, I went downtown to the state capitol for a series of brief presentations called Solutions Alabama, which were given by the near-graduates of Auburn University at Montgomery’s Certified Public Manager (CPM) program. I had received a few emails from AUM’s Continuing Education office inviting me to come, and though I wasn’t sure why – I’m not a public official and have no position of power or influence – I decided as a conscientious citizen of this state to respond with a yes and go hear what would be said. The six topics were interesting enough, from legalizing marijuana to fishing for red snapper, so I looked forward to the opportunity to learn something new.
During the brief introductory remarks, I learned first that the groups giving the presentations were close to completing a two-year certificate program while working in various areas of state government. I noticed immediately after arriving that almost everyone there was in a business suit – me in jeans and a plaid short-sleeve shirt – but I already had a feeling this would be more than a chat among friends. The folks who would talk to us had studied an array of problems we face in Alabama, were not from special interest groups with predetermined agendas, and were there to offer recommendations for solutions to six of our state’s problems.
The first person to speak, on the topic of marijuana legalization, shared the related facts that marijuana’s most common medical use is for chronic pain (about two-thirds of users) and that Alabama has the highest opioid prescription rate in the country, which is twice the national average. An open-minded listener could quickly discern that, given the terrible effects of what is called “the opioid crisis,” our state is deep in it but has an alternative to these highly addictive pharmaceuticals. Furthermore, we were told, Alabama also has some of the harshest penalties in the nation for marijuana possession, which is a contributing factor to both an unconstitutional level of over-incarceration and severe backlogs in our state’s forensics labs.
The second presentation explored the issue of housing for recently released prison inmates. The speaker began by sharing that 15,000 inmates are released from state prisons every year, and about one-third of them will return to prison. What folks are given upon release, he said, are: one set of street clothes, $10, and a bus ticket back to the site of their arrest, regardless of whether they were from that area or not. The crowd that filled the capitol’s auditorium let out a mixture of scoffs, gasps, and cynical chuckles, all of us knowing and the speaker acknowledging that $10 won’t get anyone far. However, that’s not the main problem. What stands between the released inmate and getting steady housing are the lack of ID, employment, and adequate clothing (for job interviews). Without an ID, a person can’t even cash a check, much less prove who he or she is to a potential employer. As an incentive to move on the issue, the speaker also relayed that one inmate costs about $22,000 per year to house, so if we could spend a comparatively small amount on re-entry programs, we could reduce recidivism, improve the former inmates’ lives, and save the state money.
The revelations kept coming as another presentation got under way, this one about real-world education. This time, the speaker, who worked for the Department of Corrections, talked about the need for our schools to address a serious lack of “soft skills” in our young people. He cited a study where employers were asked what skills were lacking in new, young employees, and the overwhelming number-one was attendance. The next two most common answers were: following instructions and time management. Since I teach in a high school, it sounded eerily familiar: a large part of getting along in life is showing up, doing what you’re asked, and not goofing off. Sadly, too many young people can’t or won’t or don’t know how to do these basic things.
The final one of the six that related directly to my interest in attending was about the lottery. Alabama is now one of five states without one, and the presenter asked rhetorically why so many state have created them. They make money. The crowd giggled, and after a pause, the presenter returned us to seriousness by saying, “Lotteries are indeed productive for their communities.” Countering the common arguments-against, he also explained how surveys show that people with higher incomes are more likely to participate than people with lower incomes, and that 2.6% of Americans suffer from gambling addiction, not as widespread as some opponents claim. The problem here in Alabama, however, seems not to be whether to have a lottery – the 1999 referendum on Siegelman’s education lottery was defeated 54% to 46%, not exactly a landslide – but how to allocate the money from one. Two recent lottery bills were cited, and it was the fight over how to use the money that stopped their progress in the legislature.
What was compelling to me as I listened to these successive descriptions and proffered solutions was one common theme: this will move the state forward in positive ways. We should legalize, regulate, and monitor medical marijuana, one presenter said. We should improve and require re-entry programs and we should “ban the box,” another presenter said. We should have more and better practical-minded programs to get our young people ready to earn a living, yet another declared. A fourth stated unequivocally that we should have a lottery and 100% of its revenue should go to education. And these solutions didn’t come from supposed hippie-liberal outside agitators trying to implement a socialist agenda. They came from respected, hard-working state employees who looked at the facts and came to conclusions they were willing put their names on.
Though the auditorium in the capitol was nearly packed that morning, I walked to my truck in the midday heat and thought about how many more people needed to hear those presentations. A few of the gray suits probably wondered why I was there, a scruffy-bearded guy in casual clothes who did no glad-handing, but I’d say that more folks like me should be at these talks where real Alabamians talk about real issues, sans politics. Public-policy discussions aren’t all that sexy, and white papers rarely make good beach reading, but they’re both worthwhile nonetheless. To read more about the CPM Solutions Alabama presentations, the lengthier white papers on their findings are available to read on AUM’s website.