Alabama legislators focus efforts on prison crisis

“Everything should be on the table.”
Sen. Cam Ward announced bipartisan legislative effort to address prison crisis
Sen. Cam Ward announced bipartisan legislative effort to address prison crisis
Updated: May. 16, 2019 at 7:54 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WBRC) - A bipartisan group of state lawmakers announced a handful of new bills aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system and reducing the prison population.

It’s a tall order in a traditionally tough-on-crime state, but the stakes for Alabama could not be higher. A damning report by the Department of Justice (DOJ) found the state’s prisons for men to be “cruel and unusual,” citing widespread sexual abuse, deadly violence and extortion. In 2017, a federal judge called mental healthcare in prisons “horrendously inadequate,” citing record suicides. The remedy to that class-action lawsuit will cost the state millions of dollars.

Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said a group of about 14 legislators, from both chambers and both parties, has been meeting to talk about options in reforming Alabama’s embattled correctional system. He said they’ve had “blunt, brutal” discussions, with no lobbyists present and they are hoping for a special session to address these issues. The bipartisan effort may finally make the difference needed to pass meaningful improvements in Alabama, according to Ward.

“We’ve all been open with each other,” Ward said. “I’ve been here 17 years and I’ve never seen it.”

Sen. Ward sponsored an omnibus bill, SB 382, an ambitious opening that would repeal the state’s habitual offender law, raise thresholds for property and drug crimes and allow any inmate sentenced prior to October 1, 2013, when presumptive sentencing standards took effect, to petition the court for a new sentence.

The bill is a starting point, a place to begin discussions, negotiations and the inevitable emotional wrangling that surrounds undoing policies decades in the making.

Alabama has 11 adult mental health courts and one juvenile mental health court.
Alabama has 11 adult mental health courts and one juvenile mental health court.((Administrative office of the Courts))

Another bill, HB 614 sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, would require every judicial circuit to establish drug court, mental health court and community corrections programs. The biggest need is for mental health court. Currently, 11 adult mental health courts and one juvenile mental health court are operating across the state, according to the Administrative Office of the Courts.

Some of the reform ideas are sure to be met with resistance from law enforcement and victim’s advocacy groups. Barry Matson, Executive Director of the Alabama District Attorney’s Association, said he is open to being smart on crime and looking at reforms, but hopes the discussions can be reasonable, with public safety in mind.

“There are some things that are being discussed that are positive and things we can work towards,” Matson said. “My concerns are about the release of violent offenders.”

When questioned about funding or how the state plans to implement such sweeping changes, little details were offered because lawmakers say they’re in the beginning stages.

“This notion that we need to pass a bill tomorrow, I think is foolhardy,” said Ward. “We’ve got take our time and get this right so we’re not doing this every year again.”

Yet time is not on Alabama’s side. The DOJ gave the state 49 days to address concerns outlined in the federal findings letter released April 2. Sen. Ward said state leaders are in conversation with DOJ officials and he does not anticipate a federal lawsuit under CRIPA, the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act.

Next Wednesday would be the first opportunity the DOJ could file a lawsuit.

Jay Town, U.S. Attorney for the Northern District of Alabama said in a statement Thursday that state leaders have “willingly engaged in a dialogue with us,” but it was too early to determine whether there will be CRIPA litigation.

“The Department of Justice remains hopeful that such steps will be unnecessary,” Town said.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said the DOJ report has created the political will to tackle these issues, which are not politically popular. He said for years, lawmakers gave the impression that being smart on crime meant to lock everybody up.

“We have to introduce the concept that everyone shouldn’t be incarcerated,” England said. “Everyone shouldn’t be locked away or ignored for 20 to 30 years.”

Governor Kay Ivey has not yet called a special session, but released a statement applauding the bipartisan effort, saying she believes there is no single solution and no easy answers but has faith her administration will work closely with the legislature to solve these issues.

“This problem has been kicked down the road for the last time,” Ivey said.

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