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Don't Eliminate Rehab Funds

DECATUR DAILY- OPINION

One of the primary missions of a prison system is to rehabilitate its inmates and eventually return them to society as productive, law-abiding citizens.

In Alabama, that has become less of a priority, thanks to more budget cuts.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has a two-year, $18.7 million contract with a private company to provide substance abuse treatment and job training to hundreds of inmates.

That amount has been trimmed to $3.8 million because of what a prisons spokesman describes as budget constraints.

This is yet another bad turn of events for Alabama’s prison system.

Under the terms of the contract with GEO Reentry Inc., of Boca Raton, Florida, 750 inmates are to be enrolled in the rehabilitation and training programs for six months. After the budget cut, the number will be 325 inmates.

According to state prisons information, in 2016, 649 inmates were enrolled in the re-entry program with 575 of them receiving vocational certification, and 27 inmates earning a GED. Those enrolled are nonviolent offenders.

The inmates are enrolled at the Alabama Therapeutic and Education Facility, which provides services to men and women. Since it opened, the facility has graduated more than 5,000 people. They received substance abuse treatment, and vocational training, before being released.

Recidivism is cut by about half for offenders who successfully complete the courses, officials said. That is what prisons work toward — reducing repeat offenders — and Alabama has made strides in accomplishing that goal.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has led efforts to reform the prison system. He points out that not spending money on rehabilitation is not a savings. The money eventually will be spent, he said, on more prison beds because inmates did not get the help they needed to avoid returning to their criminal past.

This is particularly true for offenders with addiction problems. Without treatment and vocational training, most of them will return to substance abuse.

Alabama’s General Fund, which pays for prisons among other state services, is anemic because of a lack of money. The problem, other than earmarks, is a ridiculously low property tax scale. Lawmakers have known this for decades but have refused to act because powerful business interests are content with avoiding paying their fair share of taxes.

The federal government is monitoring Alabama prisons because of the severe crowding. If the feds finally step in, the solutions likely will be more expensive than anything lawmakers approve.

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Gardens of Clanton Recognized

Clanton Advertiser

The Gardens of Clanton received a resolution from Sen. Cam Ward on Wednesday that recognized the assisted living facility as one of the top in the state.

The initial honor was bestowed upon the Gardens of Clanton in April after being voted among the top five in Alabama by Assisted Living Magazine.

“This is special recognition, because it comes from something that we did not apply for and is something she didn’t ask for,” said Brad Eisemann, CEO of Great Oaks Management and parent company of the Gardens of Clanton. “They just recognized the quality work.”

“It seems like it is becoming a yearly event, and it is a testament to the good job and the care that they bring here,” Ward said. “The fact that they are getting recognized tells you that it’s not just good, but it’s great.”

A fifth place ranking was earned, which was two spots higher than a year ago.

“When we are down there [Montgomery] passing bills or defeating bills that’s great, but when you get to come back and see folks that are truly happy in their daily lives, that matters more than anything else,” Ward said. “It brings it all home.”

Ward began representing Clanton after being elected to the senate in 2010. Since then, he has been a regular guest at several of the facility’s holiday events and gatherings.

The Gardens of Clanton is a parent company of Great Oaks Management, which has eight assisted living locations spread across the state.

Eisemann was joined by representation of other members of the corporate office. Chilton County Probate Judge Bobby Martin and Circuit Court Clerk Glenn McGriff were also on hand.

According to Eisemann, he believes that the top five honor is most likely the highest that the Gardens of Clanton has ever received.

“We want our facilities to be an active part of the cities that they are in,” Eisemann said. “The Gardens of Clanton is a showpiece for us.”

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Task Force to Tackle Juvenile Justice

A 22-member task force representing the governor's office, Legislature, courts, law enforcement, mental health, education and other services is launching a study of how Alabama can reduce juvenile crime.

The Alabama Juvenile Justice Task Force met for the first time today. It will work with the Pew Charitable Trusts to develop recommendations that members say will be based on evidence and data.

The approach has parallels to efforts to fix Alabama's prisons, including sentencing guidelines that took effect in 2013 and criminal justice reforms that passed in 2015. Alabama's prisons remain overcrowded and understaffed. But the inmate population is declining.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who has helped lead prison reform efforts and is a member of the new task force, said a comprehensive state-led approach to juvenile justice is needed, in part, because counties vary greatly in their ability to support the needed programs.

Community-based interventions can be more effective in stopping teens from repeat offenses than confinement in state institutions, Noah Bein of the Pew Charitable Trusts told the task force during a presentation today. Bein showed some positive results from reform efforts in other states, including Georgia and Kentucky.

Montgomery County District Attorney Daryl Bailey, a task force member, said the violent nature of crimes committed by young teens is alarming.

"We're on the cusp of losing a whole generation of kids," Bailey said. "The kids that I see coming into the criminal justice system now are becoming younger and younger, the ones that are committing these violent crimes. I'm seeing 14, 15, sometimes 13-year-olds committing the robberies, murders, these type of violent crimes that used to be reserved for the older adults."

Bailey said there are multiple factors, including mental health issues, drug abuse and social media bullying. A common thread for many youthful offenders, Bailey said, is a fundamental lack of parental guidance.

Ward said there won't be simple answers. He said a proactive effort can divert young offenders from landing in the adult system.

"There is not one silver bullet answer," Ward said.

The goal of the task force is to reach a consensus on policy recommendations and issue a report in November.

Roundtable discussions are planned for this summer with families, probation officer, judges, crime victim advocates, faith leaders, prosecutors, educators and others.

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League of Municipalities Names Hometown Heroes

Alabama League of Municipalities

On May 20th during the Opening Session of its Annual Convention in Birmingham, the Alabama League of Municipalities (ALM) recognized eight Hometown Heroes for “defending municipal authority and protecting Alabama’s cities and towns from unfunded mandates and preemptions that would prohibit municipal leaders from preserving and enhancing the quality of life for Alabama’s citizens.”

Recognized from the Senate were Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh; Senator Rodger Smitherman; Senator Jabo Waggoner; and Senator Cam Ward. Recognized from the House were Speaker Mac McCutcheon; Representative Alan Boothe; Representative Chris England and Representative April Weaver.

Greg Cochran, ALM’s Director of Advocacy and Public Affairs whose career working with the Alabama Legislature spans 30 years, said the League tracks and manages a significant amount of legislation every session. “For several years, nearly half of all the bills filed during the Regular Session affect Alabama’s cities and towns in some fashion, making it a difficult landscape to navigate,” he said. “The League is extremely appreciative of its legislative partners who go above and beyond to protect Alabama’s municipalities and, ultimately, Alabama’s citizens. We battled several bills this session that would have implemented unfunded mandates on municipal governments and established preemptive licensure and sales tax remittances that would have severely hampered our ability to fund the essential needs demanded by our citizens. These eight legislative leaders have shown extraordinary resolve in protecting the authorities of municipal governments and we applaud them for standing with our municipal citizens in protecting their cities and towns across Alabama.”

Based in Montgomery, the Alabama League of Municipalities was organized in 1935 and has served for 82 years as the recognized voice of the cities and towns in Alabama. Representing more than 450 member municipalities, the League works to secure enactment of legislation enabling all cities and towns to perform their functions more efficiently and effectively; offers specialized training for both municipal officials and employees; holds conferences and meetings at which views and experiences of officials may be exchanged; and conducts continuing studies of the legislative, administrative and operational needs, problems and functions of Alabama’s municipal governments. For more information, visit www.alalm.org.

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Gov Ivey Signs Railroad Commission Bill by Sen Ward

Gov. Kay Ivey and Sen. Cam Ward welcomed members of the Alabama law enforcement community to the State Capitol on May 10 for the signing of a Senate Joint Resolution creating the Alabama Task Force on Railway Safety.

“I would like to thank Sen. Cam Ward for sponsoring this very important resolution. We can now get to work with our railway partners and work on several critical issues in our state,” said Neil Fetner, Captain of the Clanton Police Department and Alabama Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP) Legislative Committee Co-Chair.

The Railway Safety Task Force will be comprised of a seventeen-member panel from various state and local agencies across Alabama. The task force will study the impact of railway transportation in the state and will work to identify areas where improvements can be made in the interest of public safety.

Two of the primary focuses of the task force will be the transport of hazardous materials and the routine blocking of rail crossings in metropolitan areas. It is the goal of the task force to identify ways to work with railway partners without penalizing citizens.

Sheriff Wally Olson of the Alabama Sheriff’s Association and Chief Tommie Reese of the AACOP headed the law enforcement delegation. AACOP Executive Director Adrian Bramblett, Chief Marlos Walker of the Ozark Police Department, Lt. Rex Flowers of the Demopolis Police Department and Fetner participated in the ceremonial signing which was held in the Old House Chamber at the Alabama Capitol.

Ivey presented each member of the law enforcement delegation with an ink pen used during the signing of the railway safety resolution.

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Attorney General Marshall Applauds Final Passage of Fair Justice Act

(MONTGOMERY)—Attorney General Steve Marshall today praised the Alabama Legislature for its final approval of the Fair Justice Act, advocated by the Attorney General’s Office to streamline Alabama’s decades-long death row appeals process. The House of Representatives approved an amended version on Tuesday and the Senate concurred Wednesday morning. The bill now goes to the Governor for her signature. 

“It took dedication on the part of many who have been involved to bring this bill forward and successfully guide it through a complicated legislative process. We particularly appreciate Senator Ward's dedication to seeing the bill through the final step this morning. We look forward to its enactment so that death row appeals now may proceed in a fair and efficient manner that does not prolong the suffering of victims but that provides justice to all parties.”

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Autism Advocates, Common Sense Prevail in Legislative Victory

Until 1998, women who battled breast cancer and had a mastectomy may not have received insurance coverage for reconstructive surgery. It’s hard to imagine an insurance company wouldn’t pay for making a woman whole after she stared death in the eye, lost a part of her body, and still survived. Congress passed the Women’s Health and Cancer Rights Act (WHCRA) and fix this gross inequity with a common-sense mandate.

We in the Alabama Legislature just made a similarly bold move to require insurance programs – both public and private – cover Autism therapy. Some say this is an Obamacare-style mandate and healthcare tax. I say, “Bull.”

Forty-five other states already have a mandate requiring insurance plans pay for Applied Behavioral Analysis (ABA) therapy, which is proven to help autistic patients. Individuals, especially young children, who receive ABA therapy develop skills allowing them to be more independent in school and later in life.

A lack of ABA therapy is proven to create challenges for Autistic students at school, burden government programs, and decrease the quality of life of those affected with the disorder.

It is incomprehensible why anyone would oppose the Autism therapy bill, yet some did. Who cares if it costs a little extra money when the personal and societal benefit is worth much more? Alabama already requires insurance plans to cover alcoholism treatment, breast cancer screening, colorectal cancer screening, prostate cancer screening, mammograms, and drugs that treat life-threatening illnesses. Those aren’t free, yet the benefits far outweigh the costs. The same goes for Autism therapy.

So how did we succeed in passing this bill…besides common sense? The thousands of amazing, tenacious, passionate Autism advocates. These mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles, teachers, and friends rose up and let their voice be heard.

The hallways of the Statehouse were packed day after day with families and children wearing “Vote for HB284” red stickers, multi-colored puzzle piece ribbons, and the signature Autism-support blue. Despite fierce lobbying against the bill by insurance interests and big businesses, the grassroots advocates succeeded.

HB284 isn’t a perfect bill, but it is a massive step in the right direction. We had to make some compromises to get it through the State Senate. The biggest shortcoming is that small-group and individual insurance plans are excluded. Thankfully, the Autism Society of Alabama and Autism Speaks remain committed to working together until all Alabamans affected by Autism have access to medically necessary treatment.

The fight is not over, but a major battle has been won. I am grateful to have been part of the bill’s passage and incredibly thankful for those Alabamians who let their voice be heard on behalf of Autistic children and adults in our great State.

 

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Prison Construction Bill Faces 'Do or Die' Vote

Montgomery Advertiser

This much is certain: If Alabama is going to build new prisons, it's going to have to commit this week.

Legislative leaders worked last week – sometimes through a marathon reading of a redistricting bill – to develop a prison construction bill that can not only pass the House and Senate but get through a logjam of bills in the four remaining days in the session. The House Judiciary Committee could vote on the measure Tuesday.

“We’re going to know absolutely for sure Tuesday morning where we are on prisons,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the sponsor of the bill. “It’s do or die.”

Budget and sentencing decisions made over the last four decades have created an overcrowding crisis in Alabama’s prisons. While reforms are showing real results -- the custodial population has fallen 10 percent in the last six years -- the Alabama Department of Corrections in February housed 22,688 inmates in a system designed for 13,318. That added up to a 170 percent capacity that contributes to a rising tide of violence within the state’s prisons.

Inmates sit on their bunks at Draper Correction Facility in Elmore County, Ala., on Monday, Feb. 6, 2017. Draper Correction Facility is the oldest correction facility in the state of Alabama. The prison opened in 1939. It is currently housing 1059 prisoners, Draper's designed capacity is 656.

Conditions within the state’s facilities range from abysmal to horrific. The state in 2015 settled a lawsuit with the Department of Justice over sexual abuse at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, and state officials expect to lose a federal lawsuit on mental health treatment in the prisons. Corrections officers are leaving the system amid poor conditions and low pay.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has pushed for the construction of new facilities that he says will improve safety for inmates and staff, save money and provide more programming space that could help prevent recidivism.
Sen Cam Ward in committee at the Alabama Statehouse
“Facilities built to national standards would provide for new medical, dental and mental health care infrastructure designed to meet the needs of the state’s inmate population and address many challenges the department currently faces,” Dunn said in a statement Friday.

But selling the plan to the Legislature and prison advocacy groups has been difficult. Critics have raised questions about the size of the proposed facilities and said a package of reforms passed by the Legislature in 2013 and 2015 need time to work before the state goes into construction. The price tag of the project – which in most iterations runs hundreds of millions of dollars – has also given people pause.

“When we look at corrections officers, their safety and the conditions of the system itself, that’s an issue we’ve got,” said House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia. “Another issue is the bond issue. Members are looking at the amount of the bond the state would be investing in.”

The Senate in March approved a bill that would allow local communities to float bonds to build prisons, which the state would then lease back. \McCutcheon said early Friday morning the House substitute would authorize three new men’s prisons and a new women’s facility to replace Tutwiler.

The speaker said he hoped to see the Judiciary Committee vote the bill out Tuesday, with a possible House vote Wednesday. Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Thursday the Senate would treat it as a “priority bill” if gets back to them. Ward, who has led prison reform efforts in the Legislature, rated its chances of passage at 40 percent Thursday.

“You’ve got too many factions,” he said. “(Whether) it were on the first day or the 30th day (of the session), you’ve got too many factions.”

Supporters of the bill warn that if it doesn’t pass, the expected federal court ruling on mental health care in prisons will require the Legislature to meet in special session to address it. The federal court could order major increases in prison funding, which could force the Republican-controlled Legislature – long adverse to new taxes and revenues – to seriously look at the option.

“Why put more duct tape on a broken system?” Ward said. “The problem is that duct tape requires more money in the General Fund.”

But both Ward and McCutcheon said new prisons would only be a step in the thousand-mile journey toward functional prisons.

“The bill we have is not a fix-all,” McCutcheon said. “It’s a piece, a part of this solution we need to be working toward. There are many things we need to be working toward.”

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Gov Ivey Announces Expansion of I-65

ABC 33/40

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — 

Gov. Ivey is directing Alabama Department of Transportation Director John Cooper to expand a portion of I-65 in Shelby County from four to six lanes.

The announcement came as part of a meeting with the Shelby County Legislative Delegation, according to a release from the Governor's office.

“Infrastructure development is economic development. If traffic is congested and our roads are blocked, transportation is slowed and the wheels of economic progress are slowed. As Governor, my quest is to provide Alabama’s families and small businesses with every opportunity for success; this project is just the start of our statewide focus of spurring economic growth through improving our infrastructure,” Governor Ivey said. 

The plan will expand I-65 from exit 238 in Alabaster to exit 242 in Pelham

“Governor Ivey is to be commended for her leadership on increasing the traffic capacity along a very congested portion of I-65 in north Shelby County. Our community is experiencing tremendous population and economic growth and our roads need to keep up. I am thankful that Governor Ivey recognizes the importance of infrastructure in economic development, and I look forward to working with her on future projects, both in my district and around the state,” Senator Cam Ward said in a news release.

ALDOT will begin taking bids on the plan prior to the end of 2017. The plan is estimated to cost roughly $50-60 million and is anticipated to require two years to complete. Construction is expected to begin by the end February 2018.

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Leaders Promise Autism Vote

The Plainsman

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate's powerful Republican leadership has promised a full chamber vote on a bill mandating insurance coverage for a type of autism therapy. The bill caused a split in the Senate Republican caucus.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Thursday he had worked out an agreement with the bill's supporters and budget committee chairman Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, to allow the bill to the floor. Pittman had threatened to hold the bill in committee Wednesday, even after it passed with only two nays.

Marsh said the bill will get a full day's focus Wednesday. It will be the only bill on the day's special order calendar.

"It is our full intention to take full attention to that bill on Wednesday," Marsh said. "That gives us Wednesday, Thursdayand Friday, if we need it, to deal with that. I would hope we will be able to deal with it on Wednesday, though."

The bill, which would mandate insurance coverage for an autism spectrum therapy called applied behavioral analysis therapy, has had many senators demanding a vote and some promising an inconvenient slowdown in Senate business if the opportunity for one isn’t provided.

Auburn's Sen. Tom Whatley is the senate sponsor of the bill, which was passed by the House earlier in the legislative session. Whatley and the bill’s other supporters say the mandate is needed to ensure families can afford the important but expensive therapy.

"There is a cost to it. It is a mandate, but we mandate things every day," Whatley said. "I think one of our charges is to take care of people and take care of families. When you see a parent who sees a reaction from his or her child, that is priceless."

The coverage can cost thousands of dollars a month if it isn’t covered by a family’s health insurance coverage. The therapy costs upward of $120 an hour. In Alabama, the ABA therapy is currently not covered by Blue Cross Blue Shield, the state’s largest provider.

The bill would force BCBS and other insurance providers, including state providers, to cover the therapy. The costs of the therapy could cause premiums to rise between $1-4 a month, based on numbers from other states similar in size to Alabama that have implemented similar provisions.

Auburn is one of the only schools in the Southeast to train ABA practitioners, and many have to go out of state to find jobs, Whatley said. So for him, the bill is not only positive for families but for the University and his district as well.

"One out of 68 kids has something on the autism spectrum," Whatley said. "Auburn University provides this ABA training at the school. That's our largest employer. I've got an economic look at it as well as an emotional community issue. We have a large autism community in the Auburn area."

Alabama would not be the first to mandate the coverage; it would actually be one of the last. Forty-five other states have already mandated the coverage.

Regardless, Pittman said the decision to let the bill move out of committee was a hard one. Pittman's comments Wednesday sparked controversy. Whatley, Sen. Cam Ward and Sen. Dick Brewbaker, all Republicans, promised to filibuster and hold up Senate business if there was no floor vote. They did the same thing last week to get a committee vote.

If the group of Republican senators had lined up with Democrats who have also been supportive of the bill, they could have ground the legislative session to a halt only four days before the session is set to end.

After urging from Marsh Wednesday afternoon, Pittman changed his tune.

"This has been one of the most difficult decisions I've had to make," Pittman said Thursday. "After nine years of balancing budgets and trying to pay back debts, this is a very sensitive issue and a very important bill that affects a lot of people. At the end of the day, we have to be able to pay for the costs of it."

Last week, proponents of the bill flocked to the bill’s foray in committee and begged lawmakers to pass the mandate so parents may be able to afford the life-changing therapy for their kids on the spectrum.

Ward has been a strong advocate of the bill and has a personal stake in the matter.

His 14-year-old daughter, Riley Ward, is on the spectrum and has had the ABA therapy. Riley, speaking to the committee last week, credited the therapy for her ability to speak in public.

“I grew up in my dad’s political life, going to boring dinners,” Riley Ward said. “I would lay on the floor and watch DVDs to block out the loudness. Without the help this coverage would provide, I wouldn’t be able to speak here today.”

Brewbaker said he has confidence that Pittman and Marsh will keep their word, but maybe not for the right reasons.

"Sometimes it's good to be in an election cycle, and this is one of those times," Brewbaker said. "I've been in the Legislature almost 12 years, in either the House or the Senate, and I've never seen a chairman hold a bill that's passed a committee overwhelmingly because he was just opposed to the bill."

The bill passed committee Wednesday with several amendments. If it is passed by the Senate, it will have to go back to the House for a concurrence vote. If it's passed by both Houses, it will head to Gov. Kay Ivey's desk for her signature.


Chip Brownlee reported from the State House in Montgomery. 

 

 

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