Bentley Signs Prison Reform Bill Into Law

Mike Cason- AL.COM

Gov. Robert Bentley today signed what he called historic criminal justice legislation, a plan to send fewer nonviolent offenders to prison and make it less likely that those who get out will return.

"I'm extremely proud of this legislation and what its potential is for our criminal justice system here in Alabama," the governor said at a signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sponsor of the bill, said he has gotten commitments from legislative leaders that the reforms will be funded.

Funding was not included in a budget plan passed by the House of Representatives on Tuesday, but that plan is expected to be changed in the Senate.

Ward said the bill is a start toward fixing a problem that has festered for decades.

"This is not the final end result," Ward said. "This is the first step in a long road we have ahead to fixing our corrections system."

As of February, the Department of Corrections had 24,678 inmates in facilities designed for 13,318.

State officials have said the overcrowding puts the state at risk of federal intervention.

Ward's bill is projected to reduce the prison population by about 4,200 inmates over five years.

It will reduce punishments for some property and drug crimes, creating a new low-level felony classification, Class D.

It calls for expansion of parole and other supervision efforts to divert some offenders from prison and reduce recidivism, along with many other reforms.

The bill came after months of meetings by the Prison Reform Task Force, which used research and recommendations from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped other states with similar reforms.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, who carried the bill in the House of Representatives, said the reliance on statistics and analysis is a key part of the initiative.

"This was not something that was based on philosophical beliefs or based on somebody's idea," Jones said. "This was something that was based on real data, real evidence."

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jefferson Dunn said the reforms would reduce recidivism and make prisons safer for security staff, as well as inmates.

"This legislation is as much about them and their working conditions as it is about the welfare of those who are in their custody," said Dunn, who became commissioneron April 1.

Alabama prisons have been plagued by violence, including two fatal stabbings within a week in April and a riot at St. Clair Correctional Facility in April.

The reforms are estimated to cost about $26 million a year.

The law is scheduled to take effect Jan. 30 if funding is available.

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