Cam Ward

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Business Community Announces Support for Prison Reform

By William J. Canary
Published: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 at 8:00 p.m.



That old saying, "A day of reckoning is fast approaching," is so apropos when discussing Alabama's seriously overcrowded prisons.

Addressing solely the finances of prison reform, it would cost $840 million to build new prisons that would reduce Alabama's prison capacity of 190 percent to just 100 percent. That $840 million is 44 percent of the state's unearmarked $1.9 billion general fund budget.

It could take four or five new mega-prisons to reduce chronic overcrowding, not to mention an additional $186 million a year to operate.

When you throw in the other issues involving prison overcrowding, including moral ones — the persistent dangers to inmates and prison keepers, mental health needs, lack of individual attention, and a real risk of federal court intervention, which would result in wholesale inmate releases and the expense of hundreds of millions of dollars to meet a court order — it becomes a real crisis.

That's why recommendations of a comprehensive prison overcrowding study by the Alabama Joint Prison Reform Task Force formed in 2014 deserve scrutiny by the Alabama business community.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, headed the Alabama Joint Prison Reform Task Force. Members included judges and attorneys from both prosecution and defense bars, victim advocates and legislators.

The Task Force worked with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to determine what caused our prisons to overflow.

Ward's efforts include introducing Senate Bill 67, the prison reform bill. It's on the Senate calendar when the Legislature returns to Montgomery on March 31 after spring break. 

Until now, business communities generally have left prison management to their respective states. But when states such as Alabama face an overcrowding crisis, it's incumbent upon business to become involved.


Because with Alabama's growth taxes — sales and income — earmarked largely for education, any new money for prison expansion likely will come from the job creators — Alabama business.

States are taking holistic approaches to prison overcrowding by addressing sentencing, creating a new felony category to remove some non-violent offenses from the Habitual Offender Law, diversion, mental health, drug and alcohol treatment, inmate job training, more trained probation and parole officers and prioritizing expensive prison space for violent and dangerous individuals, all the while holding offenders accountable while in prison and after their release.

Alabama's Joint Prison Reform Task Force projects that it will cost $35 million a year to implement proposals and reduce the prison population by about 4,500 inmates each year over the next six years, or 27,000 in all. The cost would be $210 million by 2021.

It won't completely reduce overcrowding to 100 percent of capacity, but in dollars, it makes "sense," especially when you consider the potentially open-ended cost of federal intervention. 

It has been written, "You can't escape the responsibility of tomorrow by evading it today." 

Great private and public partnerships remind me of a person who is capable of using one's heart and head at the same time. It just makes "sense" doesn't it?

William J. Canary is President and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama.

Prison Reform Task Force to Present Proposals in February

MONTGOMERY — The head of a prison task force said sentencing changes, increased resources for parole and alternative sentences and construction projects to take the immediate pressure off overcrowded prisons will likely be among the items the group recommends to lawmakers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the lawmaker who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said he wants members to look at a "buffet" of proposals in January and hopefully have a bill ready in February. The group has been meeting since June to consider ways to overhaul the state prison system, so overcrowded that state politicians say they fear federal intervention.

Alabama prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates the facilities were originally designed to house. Alabama in 2013 also had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.

"Politicians created this problem. Through the years we've had politicians running on 'Lock them up and throw away the key.' They ran on that platform, but they didn't have a means to fund the high rate of incarceration," said task force member Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

Alabama deals with low-level property crimes more severely than other states, according to a study presented to the task force by the Council of State Governments.

Stealing something valued at $500 is felony theft in Alabama. Thirty-four states have higher monetary thresholds for theft to be considered a felony, according to the group. Alabama also considers burglary, no matter how small or the circumstances, to be a violent crime. Other states do not.

"We haven't changed those thresholds in years. We have the lowest thresholds in the South," Ward said.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said he believes the state needs additional changes to the Habitual Felony Offender Act, a decades-old law that for years handed down decades-long sentences.

"In my opinion, and I'm the chief justice, I think the judicial system is failing us," Moore said.

"We've got people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim, they've never confronted a person. That's unreasonable," Moore said in an interview.

Alabama lawmakers approved the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977 in an effort to crack down on career criminals. It mandates enhanced sentences for repeat offenders and mandatory sentence minimums. For example, a person convicted of a Class A felony — such as first-degree robbery, trafficking, rape, murder — is sentenced to life, either with or without the possibility of parole, if they have three prior convictions for lesser felonies. Lawmakers have softened the law through the years and since 2006 have allowed judges to set the lengthy mandatory sentences aside in some cases in favor of new sentence guidelines.

The chief justice said he believes there are still problems. Moore in September wrote a dissent in a case, in which a man caught trying to steal a nail gun from a Lowe's by stuffing it down his pants, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

The man, who had three previous felony convictions, was convicted of first-degree robbery, a Class A felony, after telling the store staff that confronted him that he had a gun while sticking his hand in his pocket. Moore said the man, who was not armed with a firearm and told police he was referencing the nail gun, should not have been convicted of armed robbery because he was not armed.

Ward said a major thrust for the task force will be to seek changes to probation and parole procedures.

Forty percent of prison admissions are for violation of probation and parole, according to the study presented to the task force. Officers with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles carry average caseloads of about 200 each.

"Somewhere in this process there is going to have to be some more money for supervised parole. Right now we just don't have the manpower to conduct the kind of supervision that these inmates need," Ward said.

Ward said the state needs to do something to increase immediate prison capacity to take the immediate pressure off of the system. That too, Ward said, will also take additional money from the state.

Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said if lawmakers just pass legislation without funding, "those reform efforts are never going to reach their potential."


Editorial: A Jeffersonian Approach- Sen Ward is wise to defend other Republicans opinions

Remember what Thomas Jefferson said in his second inaugural address? That speech was given at a time when some in his party and in the opposition were calling for a crackdown on those who dared deviate from what one group or the other felt was the path all should follow.

Jefferson said to let the dissenters and the doubters “stand undisturbed as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”

Essential to the toleration Jefferson espoused was the understanding that if the “error of opinion” could not be combated with reason, it might not be error at all.

Put simply, all opinions have a place in the debate.

Which is why this page wishes to thank Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, for going on record that it is just “plain wrong” for the state GOP to prohibit anyone from serving on its steering committee if that person publicly disagreed with the platform adopted by the national Republican Party.

Ward was referring to a resolution recently introduced at the Alabama Republican Executive Committee to remove anyone from the steering committee who had the audacity to disagree with what the national party deemed the proper position to take.

As the senator went on to note, the resolution to remove “is all (about) one person, Stephanie Petelos,” the chairwoman of the College Republicans Federation of Alabama.

Petelos’ crime against the party was to point out that young Republicans would be speaking out in favor of gay marriage if they “didn’t live in fear of a backlash from party leaders.”

So, to prove Petelos’ point, state party leaders are lashing back.

Except for Cam Ward, who came not to the defense of gay marriage, he opposes that, but to the defense of Petelos’ right to speak her mind on the issue without being punished by the party for her opinion.

Chiding some in his party for wanting a “100 percent litmus test for everybody,” Ward expressed the “hope that our party sees the need to reject this resolution and welcome the views of all our party members and not just a select few.”

We agree with Sen. Ward. 

So, we believe, would Thomas Jefferson.

Cam Ward
Dad, Legislator, and enjoying life. Alabama State Senator- Republican- District 14