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July 29, 2014

Alabama struggling (and facing lawsuits) as sentencing toughness produces overcrowded prisons

As reported in this new local article, headlined "Governor Bentley to feds, prison reform advocates: 'You all are crazy to sue us'," elected officials in Alabama are struggling to figure out how best to deal with too many prisoners and prison problems. Here are the details:

Gov. Robert Bentley acknowledged the immense problems facing the state's prison system but said Monday that his administration needs time to address them, not lawsuits. Speaking at the annual convention at the Alabama Sheriffs' Association, Bentley said his message is the same whether his audience is the U.S. Justice Department or advocacy groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center.

"You all are crazy to sue us," he said. "What good does it do to sue us?"

Bentley said he is as interested as anyone in solving problems that include overcrowding and allegations of mistreatment of inmates. He said he wants to work with anyone who has ideas about how to improve the system but added that lawsuits only divert time and money away from those solutions.

The Montgomery-based Southern Poverty Law Center has, in fact, sued the state over its prisons. The organization alleged last month that the state has failed to meet its constitutional responsibilities to provide adequate health care to prisoners. Maria Morris, an attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, said her organization had no choice but to sue to force improvement to years-old problems.

The Justice Department so far has not sued. But a scathing report in January detailing alleged abuses at the Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka has raised fears among the state's elected leaders that federal authorities are preparing to do so.

Bentley said the state cannot solve its prison problem without taking further steps to reduce long sentences, although he offered no specific proposals. "It is a real problem in this state. Not only is it a problem, but our sentencing of our prisoners is a real problem," he said.

The Legislature already has taken action in recent years on that front. Sentencing guidelines designed to reduce penalties for certain nonviolent and drug crimes have been "presumptive" since October, meaning that judges must cite specific reasons if they depart from the recommendations.

As far as addition action, Bentley said the state is waiting recommendations from the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a program coordinated by the National Council of State Governments Justice Center. He acknowledged the political difficulty of taking on the prison issue.

"I can't run for governor talking about prison reform. People say, 'I don't care about that,'" he said. "But they do care if you have to raise taxes to build more prisons. They do care if you let violent prisoners out."

Bentley suggested changes in the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, which was designed to crack down on repeat criminals but has helped spark a massive increase in the state's prison population since its passage in 1977. "The habitual offender act probably has increased our prison population more than anything else," he said.

Bentley said he opposes leniency for violent criminals and sex offenders – "I don't think we ought to let them out" – but said some nonviolent offenders serving longer prison terms because of the law probably can be rehabilitated faster. "If we don't do that, we're going to have to find money to build more prisons," he said.

July 29, 2014 at 12:12 PM | Permalink

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