By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. - Gov. Kay Ivey has endorsed a package of criminal justice reform bills as a way to respond to systemic problems within Alabama's prisons system.
After Ivey’s task force on criminal justice reform gave its final recommendations for legislative priorities in January, Ivey said the resulting slate of bills will build upon her plan of constructing three new men’s prisons.
“I tasked the Criminal Justice Study Group with the mission of finding data-driven solutions to our longstanding challenges in our prison system,” Ivey said in a news release announcing the legislative package.
There are five bills and one joint resolution, as well as a recommendation to increase funding for prison education programs and better access to mental health care.
One of the bills would mandate those who are coming to the end of their sentence undergo mandatory pre-release supervision and education programs.
Senate Bill 244 aims help reduce the number of inmates from returning to prison, said bill sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster,“We want them to be safe law-abiding citizens. We want them to get a job and pay taxes and not go back to prison,” Ward told Alabama Daily News. “I think legislators on both sides of the aisle feel the same way.”
Ward said the bill also calls for additional funding to be put towards these programs.
In her announcement, Ivey suggested an increase of $4.2 million be budgeted to expand prison education programs. The Department of Corrections' General Fund allocation for fiscal year 2020 was around $517 million.
Another bill dealing with rehabilitation is being sponsored by Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, and would establish a deputy commissioner of rehabilitation within the ADOC, as well as the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.
A Senate joint resolution from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, would establish a study group to address uniformity and increasing access to pre-trial diversion programs across the state.
Singleton said he hopes to find the best model for pre-trial programs and stop the pay-to-play practices that unfairly hurt low-income individuals.
“We wanted to look at all of those different models and see if we can build something that is equitable and makes sure people who come out never go back into prison,” Singleton told ADN.
Ivey also recommended that her office work with the Pardons and Paroles to make sure parolees have more access to their probation officers. There wasn’t any specific legislation announced in connection to that.
A bill from Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would require ADOC to report more information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee and update the oath of office that is taken by correctional officers to reflect the department’s renewed focus on rehabilitation.
The additional information that ADOC would be required to report includes data on:
- The size or composition of the inmate population;
- The status of correctional officer staffing levels;
- Inmate participation in education, vocational, religious or reentry programs;
- Litigation involving the performance of an ADOC employee;
- Sexual abuse and sexual victimization of inmates while in custody and the status of the investigation case;
- The number, manner and cause of inmate deaths while in custody;
- Cell phones, electronic devices, weapons and controlled substances recovered in facilities.
A bill sponsored by Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, will provide former inmates the ability to receive a non-driver photo identification card to help them rejoin the workforce.
House Bill 342 would require ADOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to work together to assist inmates in obtaining a Social Security card, birth certificate and a non-driving photo ID prior to release.
The fifth bill is sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, and would allow anyone convicted of a non-violent crime to have their sentence re-evaluated under the presumptive sentencing guidelines established in 2013. An inmate’s sentence could be re-considered if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in custody. The decision is up to a judge’s discretion.
Hill said that there are around 500 to 700 inmates whose sentences could be re-evaluated and shortened under this bill. He said it won’t have a huge impact on reducing prison populations but is about creating fairness in Alabama’s sentencing structure.
“To me it’s a fundamentally fair thing to do as we look at the situation as a whole,” Hill told ADN.
Hill also said this would also apply to those convicted under Alabama’s Habitual Offender Act as long as their sentencing involved non-violent crimes.
“I think we have effectively done away with the Habitual Offender Act when we went to the presumptive guidelines,” Hill said. “What this is to look at those individuals who were sentenced prior to that time if it's warranted.”
The Alabamians for Fair Justice coalition, a band of progressive organizations advocating for criminal justice reform, said in an emailed statement that the proposed bill package is a positive move forward but more immediate action needs to be taken.
“The Alabama prison system is at a breaking point,” the statement read. “The legislation introduced to date provides a step forward but lacks the urgency the crisis demands.”
The coalition says that at least 28 incarcerated people died due to homicide, suicide or overdose in 2019. Measures to reduce prison crowding and stopping violence within facilities should be more heavily considered than focusing on building three new prisons, the group said.
“This is a time for bold action to reduce Alabama’s prison population; not half-measures that keep Alabama at risk of a federal takeover,” the statement said. “Without meaningful reforms that address sentencing and the conditions of Alabama’s prisons, the state will continue to fail its people. Construction alone, as the (U.S. Department of Justice) noted, will not cure what ails Alabama’s correctional system.”
The coalition also released its own proposed legislative ideas for reform which included modifying marijuana possession laws, overhauling prison diversion and community corrections programs and improving mental health care for inmates.
Ivey also said she wants an increase of $1.8 million in the state's Department of Mental Health to expand the Stepping Up program to reduce the number of people with mental illnesses in jail.
The announcement also stated that increasing ADOC’s budget to help expand staffing numbers in order to comply with federal courts is also needed, as well as adding 104 mental health professionals within prison facilities.