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May 8, 2015

Alabama rolls to join tide of red states enacting significant prison and sentencing reform

Images (1)As reported in this local article, the "Alabama Legislature Thursday gave final approval to a sweeping prison reform bill aimed at addressing the state's prison overcrowding crisis." Here are the basic details and the back-story:

The bill passed the House on a 100 to 5 vote Thursday evening.  The Senate, which approved the bill in March, concurred in the changes just a few minutes later on a 27 to 0 vote.  The legislation now goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who said in a statement Thursday evening he planned to sign the bill, pending a legal review.

Bentley said in a statement the passage of the bill signaled "a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama's criminal justice system."...

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Thursday evening the passage of the bill was a first step, not a final solution to the crisis. "No one should think we pass this bill tonight and prisons are solved, because they're not," Ward said.

Prison overcrowding, an issue in Alabama for decades, stood at 186 percent in January, and the crisis has contributed to mounting violence in the state's correctional facilities. The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women over accounts of sexual violence and harassment.  Six inmates have been killed at the St. Clair Correctional Facility since 2011, and allegations of physical or sexual violence have been leveled at three other prisons, including Elmore County Correctional Facility.

The reform bill aims to address the prison overcrowding crisis with new investments in parole, probation and supervision; the creation of a Class D felony for relatively minor crimes; limits on prison time and mandatory supervision for those convicted of Class C felonies, and changes to punishments for technical violations of parole.  The changes are expected to cost between $23 and $26 million a year, roughly 6.5 percent of the Department of Corrections' current $394.1 million allocation from the General Fund.

On its own, the bill will not resolve the crisis.  However, with additional building funded under a separate piece of legislation, capacity could fall to 138 percent over the next five years, with the overall population falling by about 4,500 inmates.  "That would be the largest reduction of any state in the country to this date," Ward said.

Ward said that may prevent the system from falling into federal receivership, which could lead to significant increases in prison spending; mass release of prisoners, or both. The bill before the House, Ward said, was a targeted way to address the population.  "No one's being released early," he said. "That's what we're trying to avoid, a bunch of violent offenders being released early."

The bill reflects recommendations made by the Council of State Governments and approved by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, which Ward chairs.  House Judiciary Committee chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, said at the start of the House debate that the bill was not a matter of ideology.  "This is not about being Democrats, this is not about being Republicans, this is about being responsible for a problem our state faces," he said....

Some members of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force had pushed for a more sweeping bill that would have made many of the provisions retroactive.  However, Ward and other sponsors of the legislation said the coalition behind the reforms was not likely to have gone that far.

The passage of the legislation received praise from both sides of the ideological divide. Susan Watson, the executive director of ACLU Alabama, applauded the passage of the bill in a statement Thursday evening.  "The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious over-incarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it," the statement said.

Katherine Robinson, vice president of the Alabama Policy Institute, called the move a "significant step" toward addressing the problem.  "This collaborative effort has provided the necessary catalyst of meaningful reform to Alabama's prison system," Robinson said in a statement.

House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the accusations at Tutwiler, St. Clair and other facilities served as a "wake-up call" to legislators who may have otherwise been reluctant to address a politically difficult issue.  "Clearly the best course of action for us as a state was to take control of this and fix it ourselves," he said.  "I'm proud of the fact we have taken a leadership role.  It was clear we were running out of time."

May 8, 2015 at 11:52 AM | Permalink

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