The Alabama Legislature overwhelmingly approved a bill intended to reduce overcrowding in Alabama prisons. The House of Representatives passed the a bill from the Senate 100-5 with a few amendments. The Senate, which had passed the bill in April, concurred with the changes made by the House in a 27-0 vote. Sen. Cam Ward, who has worked tirelessly on prison reform, stated:
This is not the final step. This is the first step in a long path forward. I’m just very proud our state has finally taken a meaningful step forward in prison reform.
The legislation was signed into law by Gov. Robert Bentley, who supported the prison reform effort. The Governor said in a statement:
Today’s passage of SB67 is a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama’s criminal justice system.
The Senate in April approved the bill, sponsored by Sen. Ward, and sent it to the House. Rep. Mike Jones, who handled the bill in the House, said the plan would reduce the prison population by 4,500 inmates over five years. As of February, the Alabama Department of Corrections had 24,678 inmates in facilities designed for 13,318.
The new law would reduce penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes. It would create a new Class D felony designation for some nonviolent offenses. It would place new emphasis on parole and supervision of offenders to divert some from prison and to keep others from going back. It should be noted, however, that the creation of the Class D felony will result in an increase in the country jails statewide.
A related bill calls for use of $60 million in bond money to expand prison capacity by about 1,500 to 2,000 beds. The House has passed that bill and it is now in the Senate. Sen. Ward said the bond money could be used to add space at existing facilities, rather than building a new prison. He said the Department of Corrections should decide where the capacity is added. Rep. Jones said the state might consider adding facilities near the counties that produce the most inmates. He noted that 10 counties account for 59 percent of prisoners.
The combination of the reforms and added space would drop the prison population to just under 140 percent of designed capacity over five years, according to Sen. Ward. He says the number is a good target because federal courts forced California to reduce its population to 137 percent. Alabama is at risk of federal intervention, without any doubt, if it does not reduce overcrowding.
The reforms, not including the construction, are estimated to cost about $23 million to $26 million a year. Some of that money would be used to hire about 100 parole officers and about 25 parole staff. Funding for the reforms would come through the General Fund. Sen. Ward says fixing Alabama’s prison system will take time, but that this bill is a major step. He added:
No one is getting released early. However, how we deal with inmates going forward as well as how we deal with inmates who are already on parole and their supervision will be dealt with and handled differently.
Alabama prisons have been overcrowded for many years. The problem has drawn more attention in the last year. The Department of Justice issued a report last year finding that inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison were subject to sexual abuse and misconduct by male officers.
While this legislation is a step in the right direction, funding is still a major problem. More will have to be done to reduce the prison population to an acceptable number. If the legislature doesn’t adequately fund the prison reform legislation, the result will be in a federal take-over of Alabama’s prison system. I hope the leadership in the House and Senate recognize the seriousness of this situation and will make sure the funds are made available to carry out the reform effort.
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
Fields marked *may be required for submission.
If you would like to subscribe to the Jere Beasley Report digital edition, simply visit our Subscriptions page and provide the necessary information or call us at 800-898-2034.
Attorney Advertising - Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.