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Playing Politics With Prison Reform is Dangerous

By Cam Ward, an Alabama State Senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.; and Mike Jones, Jr. an Alabama State Representative and chair of the House Judiciary Committee

Last year, an inmate walking out the door of an Alabama correctional facility might have spent the first day of his or her release, and every day thereafter, under virtually no supervision.

Many people in the state who were convicted of serious, even violent, offenses who served long sentences did not receive sufficient supervision and treatment upon release, increasing the likelihood that they would reoffend. According to the latest research—and common sense—this put our public safety at risk.

Now, as a result of legislation passed late last year, every single person who serves a prison sentence will be supervised upon release. We believe this is a major step forward in keeping Alabamians safer. Curiously, this same law is suddenly under fire from some of the same people involved in its writing.

state Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia.Prior to the new law, Alabama faced a crisis: State prisons had reached extreme levels of overcrowding, operating at 195 percent of capacity. Years of avoiding the issue came to a head in 2014, when the federal government threatened to intervene.

With assistance from national experts who have helped states such as North Carolina, West Virginia and Texas tackle similar problems, the legislature passed a comprehensive plan last year to safely ease the overcrowding, save taxpayers money and reinvest savings into strategies that are proven to bolster public safety.

Newly vocal opponents would have you believe that our prisons are filled only with people who have committed violent crimes, and that to reduce overcrowding we're letting violent criminals out of prison to roam the streets. This is not true.

In 2013, 40 percent of prison admissions consisted of people who violated their probation or parole supervision, and about 30 percent of those admissions were due to technical violations, such as breaking curfews or testing positive for drug use.

The law passed last year created a new category of felonies—Class-D—for the lowest-level property and drug offenses, ensuring that the degree of punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime, and that prison space is reserved for people who commit violent crimes or are most likely to reoffend.

The law also dictates that all people who leave prison will receive supervision to ensure they stay on the straight and narrow. By 2018, 3,000 additional people each year will be monitored who previously would have been unsupervised after release from prison.

How do we oversee all these additional people? The new law funds the hiring of additional probation and parole officers and ensures that supervision resources are focused on people who are most likely to reoffend.

Incarceration is still an option for people who violate the terms of their supervision. Swift sanctions, including short, immediate jail stays, will now be imposed for technical violations of probation and parole. The new law also invests $4 million in  expanding substance-use treatment for probationers and parolees, the first such investment in Alabama's history.

We trust the nationwide research that shows that people are less likely to reoffend if they receive treatment in the community rather than in prison. Requiring people who commit lower-level offenses to serve their sentences on probation or in a community corrections program allows the state to prioritize prison space for people who commit more serious crimes.

A year ago, we could not have anticipated needing to rehash these arguments. Alabama had the most crowded prisons in the country, and federal intervention was a real and frightening possibility. And yet we felt confident we could change course, because stakeholders—legislators, judges, law enforcement officials, and yes, even district attorneys—came together to find a solution. In fact, district attorneys held three seats—more than any other stakeholder—on the Prison Reform Task Force, the group that made the recommendations that led to the new law after months of extensive dialogue.

So, if you hear people cast doubt on this law, look closely at what we would face without it. Picture a line graph spiking to show an astronomical rise in Alabama's prison population. Picture the federal government intervening in our state's public safety operation. And picture people leaving prison with no oversight in the community.

Alabama deserves better, and that's the truth.

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Unearmarking Bill Moves Forward

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Sentencing Reform Necessary

Decatur Daily Editorial

THE ISSUE In Alabama, we’re torn between the desire to be tough on crime and the reluctance to pay the price for an adequate corrections system. Sentencing reform legislation that took effect recently was an implicit recognition the state can’t afford the penalties it wants to impose.

On Jan. 30, major sentencing reform legislation took effect in the state. It was one of the most ambitious laws passed by the state Legislature in recent years, and its passage may have owed much to its complexity. The public did not understand the law well enough to oppose it. The law’s net effect, and its goal, was to ease the penalties on nonviolent crimes.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, shepherded the legislation through the Statehouse, and he’s taking a beating now that district attorneys and the public understand what it does.

While the Legislature may need to tweak the law, Ward should not be painted as a villain. What he accomplished was long overdue.

Alabamians want to be tough on crime. Alabamians don’t want to pay taxes. These desires are in direct conflict, and it was up to the Legislature to choose between them.

The reality that Ward and a majority of his colleagues understood is that the status quo was unsustainable. The state prison system houses almost twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. The most obvious problem with this is it invites an enormously expensive federal takeover.

Less obvious but more important, the state’s crowded prisons turn offenders who made dumb mistakes into hardened criminals. Alabama’s prisons have a revolving door; 40 percent of all admissions to Department of Corrections custody violated the terms of probation or parole. When major crimes take place in the Decatur area, the offender invariably has served time in prison before.

In other words, the “hard on crime” approach is not working. We can’t afford to keep every offender in prison for life, and the cruel conditions in our crowded, understaffed prisons undermine any chance of rehabilitation. The offenders become victims of the state’s neglect, and they in turn frequently victimize others upon their release.

By diverting many offenders who commit nonviolent crimes away from prison and into probation, the Legislature hopes to reduce prison crowding, prevent a federal takeover and break the repeat-offender cycle.

One of the primary concerns raised by district attorneys across the state, including Morgan County DA Scott Anderson, is that the state has not committed enough funding to hiring the new probation officers necessary to implement the reforms. Supervision of criminals who are not placed in prison needs to be intense, and DAs worry probation officers have caseloads that do not permit them to do their jobs effectively.

While Corrections Department officials say more probation officers are being hired, the Legislature needs to monitor the issue closely. A good law will become a disaster if the probation system is not robust.

It’s convenient for the public and for local DAs to be able to send offenders to a remote prison and forget about them for a few years. For nonviolent offenders, however, that solution makes things worse. Unless Alabamians were willing to pay more in taxes to expand prison capacity, sentencing reform was necessary.

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Initial Response to Governor's Prison Plan Positive

MONTGOMERY — Statehouse GOP leaders and several local lawmakers offered initial support for Gov. Robert Bentley’s plan to borrow an estimated $700 million to $800 million to build four large prisons.

“I think it is very feasible,” said Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, a member of the Senate General Fund Committee. “I think it can work because they have crunched the numbers.”

He said the Alabama Department of Corrections can use its annual appropriation from the state to service the bond debt while saving money from closing old prisons.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said the plan calls for closing 14 of the state’s 16 major correctional facilities. It isn’t known which prisons would close, or if the Limestone Correctional Facility is on the list. The plan would not impact DOC work centers such as the one in Decatur.

Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, was enthusiastic about the proposal.

“I may be disappointed, but I think people will praise the governor for saying we have to do something,” Greer, who is on the House General Fund Committee, said. “We either have to build some prisons, or have the federal government come in and take over.”

Crowding and safety issues have plagued the state prison system for years. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has led a commission to reduce crowding.

“By doing the consolidation and construction at the same time, you can pay off the bond issue in 10 years through the savings,” Ward said. “We’re spending tens of millions of dollars a year just on repairs and maintenance on current facilities because they’re so old. Some were built during World War II.”

Ward said consolidated cafeteria and health care services, some of the biggest prison costs, would also save money.

Combined with reforms passed by lawmakers last year, Ward said, the system inmate capacity would be fewer than 135 percent. “That’s remarkable,” Ward said.

The system is currently at nearly double the capacity it was built to house.

Democrats are more skeptical.

“I just think it’s real ambitious, when they’re saying we don’t have enough money to fund the General Fund (budget),” said Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia. “I’d have to look at the numbers on how we’re going to repay that. I’m afraid we’ll be saddling our children and grandchildren with massive debt. That’s something we’ll have to look at.”

Rep. Johnny Mack Morrow, D-Red Bay, said given the fiscal condition of the state and cuts to agencies and programs, it’s “ridiculous” to propose a massive bond.

He said he hears from district attorneys in his area who can’t get evidence processed quickly at the state forensic lab because of budget cuts.

“Trials are being delayed,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said the plan doesn’t call for more money from the state’s General Fund. He called the plan aggressive but doable.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, who’s also on the General Fund committee, said he sees the potential for savings.

“I could certainly be in support of it if the numbers make sense when we look at it,” Stutts said.

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, said the state has been patching its prison program for too long.

“Now is the time to solve it,” he said.

Two Senate General Fund committee members from north Alabama, Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison, and Tim Melson, R-Florence, said they need more information about the proposal.

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Lawmakers Support Governor's Prison Plan

By Mike Cason, AL.com

The chairmen of the Alabama Senate's General Fund and Judiciary committees say Gov. Robert Bentley's ambitious plan to overhaul the state's prison system is promising.

Bentley is expected to announce during his State of the State address tonight a plan to tear down the state's aging prisons and replace them with four larger, modern facilities.

The project would be funded with a bond issue of up to $800 million. The bonds would be paid off with money saved on maintenance and other expenses associated with the state's aging, overcrowded prison facilities.

"It's a good plan," said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Montrose, chairman of the Senate's Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee. "It's a plan that merits serious consideration and support once we verify all the details."

Pittman said factors that could make the plan work include low interest rates on borrowing the money, the potential savings on maintenance, the ability to manage inmates better with relatively fewer corrections officers and to make prison more conducive to education and workforce training.

"It sounds like it's feasible. We just need to double-check and verify the costs and numbers and timelines," Pittman said.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairmen of the Senate Judiciary Committee and the state's prison reform task force, said he learned about the plan about a month ago and supports it.

Alabama's newest major prison is Bibb Correctional Facility in Brent, which was opened in 1997. Many of the state's 15 major prisons are much older than Bibb.

Maintenance costs are a major drain, he said.

"What's going on is it's just chewing up our corrections budget," Ward said.

Ward said prison design has advanced significantly. He said significant savings can result from streamlined cafeteria and health care facilities in larger prisons that are divided into pods for different levels of offenders.

"It's a much more efficient use of space, much more modern and safer," Ward said.

Ward said the plan for new prisons would complement the reforms passed last year that were intended to reduce the problem of prison overcrowding.

Those reforms included lesser sentences for some nonviolent property and drug offenses and increased probation, parole and community corrections programs to keep offenders out of prison and from returning to prison.

"No matter what we did, we were going to have to have some construction take place," Ward said.

He said the Bentley plan could result in an additional 2,500 to 3,000 prison beds.

The Department of Corrections will spend $400 million from the state's $1.75 billion General Fund this year, the second largest amount of any agency behind Medicaid.

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Time to Regulate Lawsuit Lending

For decades, Alabama was known as “tort hell.” The legal environment was tilted toward plaintiffs and businesses were taking it hard on the chin. This made some trial lawyers very wealthy, but it cost Alabama untold thousands of jobs as businesses and doctors went elsewhere. During the 1990s, voters flipped the appellate and Supreme Court to Republican justices. In 2010, the people of Alabama elected a conservative, Republican majority to the Legislature. Common sense reforms since then have brought Alabama’s legal environment back to healthy balance. Now over the past few years, a new form of predatory lending – known as lawsuit-lending or litigation finance - has to come to the surface. Lawsuit-lending companies, often backed with hundreds of millions of dollars from Wall Street financial firms, speculate on the outcome of legal cases by placing bets on the final decision of a case in the form of loans to a plaintiff. These loans usually have excessively high interest rates, sometimes exceeding 150 percent, which often drain away payments awarded to a plaintiff. For example, Binyamin Applebaum of the New York Times has reported that in 1995, a woman in Philadelphia borrowed money to finance a lawsuit concerning a car accident. But Applebaum writes that by “the time she won $169,125 in 2003, [her] lenders were owed $221,000.” The aggressive lawsuit lending industry poses two challenges to Alabama’s legal system. First, the exorbitant interest rates on lawsuit loans distort how plaintiffs negotiate in the legal process. Inevitably, plaintiffs refuse reasonable offers of damages from the defendant and push for more and more money to cover the excessive loans they will owe, like the woman from Philadelphia. But the main problem now is that lawsuit lenders operate largely in the dark, outside the normal regulations governing other types of lenders. Lawsuit loans are not subject to overview from the state Banking Department and lenders can operate without a license in Alabama. It is time to bring lawsuit lending into the light of common-sense regulation. In February, I will introduce legislation in the Alabama Senate that will cap lawsuit loan rates at 10%, require lawsuit lenders to obtain a license, and give the state Banking Department oversight of the industry. Every other type of lending is regulated in Alabama; why should lawsuit-lending companies, often backed by hundreds of millions of dollars from hedge fund titans and Wall Street financiers, alone be exempt from regulation? Conservatives have worked hard to achieve a legal system that is fair to businesses, individuals, and plaintiffs. But left unchecked, lawsuit-lending companies will continue to prey on unsuspecting consumers, drive up the cost of doing business in Alabama, and add more cases to an already overburdened legal system. Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have all passed common-sense regulations of the industry over the past few years. It is time Alabama joined their ranks.

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Mental Health Services Critical to Prison Reform

The group, whose recommendations on parole and probation passed the Legislature last spring, has turned to mental health issues in prisons and jails, which contributes to overcrowding.

“We’ve always had a lock them up and throw away the key mentality,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chairman of the task force. “If we look at mental health treatment, drug treatment, it’s a lot cheaper and lot more effective at reducing the crime rate than the way we’ve had done it.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections spends about $12 million a year on mental health treatment. Corrections has diagnosed about 3,000 inmates –12 percent of the current state prison population – with a chronic mental illness.

Nationwide, about 16 percent of the prison population suffers from mental illness. Foster Cook, director of Jefferson County’s Community Corrections program and a member of the task force, thinks there could be more. He said about 39 percent of those who return to prison were unable to find adequate treatment after their initial release. Parole, probation and community corrections officers surveyed say substance abuse services have, at best, limited availability.

“A lot of them said these services were not available,” he said. “It was even worse for mental health issues.”

The task force is looking at integrating mental health programs into the corrections system. The hope is better delivery will lead to better results after release from prison, cutting the recidivism rate and overcrowding. Through August, the state’s prisons held 24,333 inmates in a system built for 13,318 – an overcrowding rate of just under 183 percent.

Delays in parole and probation, along with sentencing of inmates for technical parole violations, have contributed to the overcrowding crisis. Gov. Robert Bentley signed a bill in May that aimed to address the overcrowding issue with new investments in pardons and paroles and post-release supervision, with an eye toward reducing recidivism – and overcrowding.

Both Ward and Cook said in separate interviews that improving access to mental health treatment would not only improve the health of those released, but help drive down costs.

“What we really need is centralized assessment services, where people under supervision can go to a place where they can get a quick and easy assessment by a qualified staff using modern ways to make assessments to determine if they have a problem and what help is needed,” Cook said.

Cook said such a program should be available in the state’s five largest counties – Jefferson, Mobile, Madison, Montgomery and Shelby.

The task force will also look at mental health courts. Jefferson County revived its court this year after the county’s bankruptcy forced it to shut down. The courts, consulting with the district attorneys, review cases involving nonviolent Class B or C felonies and prepare treatment plans for those with serious illnesses, with the goal of diverting people from jail and reducing recidivism. Jefferson County has a total of 58 people enrolled in the program, with 65 identified and in process at the Birmingham mental health court.

Ward also said the task force would also look at the referral process for mental health programs. Juvenile justice will also be a focus as the task force looks for ways to stop people “from going down the wrong path.”

No concrete proposals are yet developed, nor are cost estimates. Ward said prison reform in the long run will save the state money.

“Funding is going to be part of any long-term solution,” Ward said. “The key is how do we make it cheaper and much more efficient in the long run in keeping crime down.”

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Un-earmarking is a common-sense solution to budget issues

Budget cuts. Tax increases. Agency restructurings.

We've heard and seen it all over the past several months since the Legislature first came to order in early March. Since that time, there has been a regular session and two special sessions. Throughout each, a lot of ideas were bounced off the wall – some stuck, some got shot down, and some still have legs.

State senators and representatives came forward with ways they thought the $200 million hole in the General Fund budget should be filled. On one side you had those who believed government services should be unilaterally slashed without regard to the impact on our citizens. On the other side was Governor Bentley with a $541 million tax increase that also gave equal disregard to the impact on Alabamians.

Most legislators, including myself, believed a more responsible solution was a mix of targeted cuts to state agencies, small revenue increases, and continued reform of high cost state services, like Medicaid and prisons. This was the budget solution ultimately passed the Legislature and was signed by Governor Bentley in September.

Most state agencies were asked to make cuts ranging from 1% to 5%. A $0.25 increase in the cigarette tax was passed to fund the exploding cost of Medicaid, while reforms to our state prison system and Medicaid will save taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars over the coming years.

Yet, there are still grave fiscal challenges ahead for Alabama. The growing number of senior citizens in our state means the cost of the Medicaid program will continue to rise over the coming decade. Even now, Medicaid consumes 37% of the state's General Fund budget, which funds all non-education expenses.

For Alabama to thrive in the coming decade, the Legislature must have flexibility to allocate state tax dollars in the most efficient manner possible. Currently, 91% of Alabama's tax dollars are earmarked for specific departments or programs. Alabama has the highest percentage of earmarked revenue in the nation, and the next highest is Michigan with only 63%. The national average is just 24%. That means Alabama has nearly four-times the earmarks of the average state.           

Earmarking leads to apathy in state government since state agencies are assured specific sources of funding, and there isn't incentive to show they are using current funds efficiently. Bureaucrats can rest easy in the knowledge that a stream of taxpayer dollars is earmarked just for their programs.

I believe government can and does provide essential functions for our citizens. But there should pressure on the agencies each year to become as efficient as possible, in order that you, the taxpayer, can keep more of your hard-earned income.

That is why I have authored a bill that will significantly reduce the number of earmarks in the state budget. Under this legislation, more than $450 million in state revenue will be un-earmarked. It represents about 15 percent of the total earmarked state General Fund dollars, leaving protected the funds that draw down federal matches or fund critical services.

Just as a business or family must have some flexibility in yearly budgeting to respond to changing priorities, the Legislature needs the ability to move resources to meet changing needs for our state.

Both excessive debt and high levels of taxation will mire an economy in sluggish growth. Republicans in the Legislature have stood firm against the Governor's calls for massive, broad-based tax hikes. Yet, the challenge of fully funding essential programs like Pre-K for our children and Medicaid for the elderly can only be met if the Legislature has the flexibility to move funds on an as-needed basis.

Un-earmarking state revenue to create more flexibility is the crucial next step to ensure we deliver a sound financial future to our children and grandchildren. We have seen the dire consequences of debt and high tax rates in countries like Greece, states like Illinois, and cities like Detroit.

For Alabama to continue to afford the low tax rates we enjoy, the Legislature needs additional flexibility to more smartly allocate existing resources. That's exactly why we need this un-earmarking bill to pass in the 2016 legislative session.

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Prison Reform Task Force Looks at Monitoring

MONTGOMERY — The state of Alabama doesn’t monitor parolees with electronic devices, but could consider it as a way to reduce recidivism and ultimately lower the population in crowded prisons.

“It’s worth pursuing depending on how you determine you’re going to fund it, that’s the question,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. He’s chairman of the state’s Prison Reform Task Force.

“It’s worth pursuing because what a lot of places have shown is that it reduces recidivism, it keeps (offenders) on the straight and narrow, it keeps them from going places they shouldn’t be going,” Ward said.

It costs about $3 to $8 a day to monitor an offender electronically, Rachel Semago, of 3M Electronic Monitoring, told the task force Tuesday. The price range depends on the level of service, she said.

The company is monitoring 60,000 people worldwide.

She said about half of states who monitor offenders require they pay a fee.

Semago cited a five-year-old Florida State University study of 5,000 medium- and high-risk offenders found that monitoring reduced by 31 percent the offender’s likelihood to fail their community supervision. However, she said, electronic monitoring is less effective on violent offenders.

3M offers two types of monitoring: traditional ankle bracelets that monitor when an offender is at home, and bracelets with GPS.

“(GPS) gives a lot of data; you can start monitoring patterns about where they’re going,” Semago said.

Currently, some counties and city law enforcement use monitoring devices.

Earlier this year, lawmakers passed a prison reform package, including changes to sentencing standards, created by the task force.

The changes seek gradually to reduce crowding in Alabama’s prisons, some of which are about double the capacity they were designed to hold.

In February, new parole guidelines will go into effect.

They’ll be available for public comment in early December, said Robert Longshore, one of three members of the state’s Board of Pardons and Paroles.

He told task force members the new guidelines, along with 100 new parole officers expected to be hired next year, mean that the positive impact on state prisons should be seen sooner rather than later.

“Supervision of offenders stops problems before they become the level where somebody needs to be revoked and go back to prison,” Longshore said.

“Under this (new) system, there will be intermediate sanctions that will let them think about the error of their ways. It’s a good thing.”

Ward said the task force will meet again next month to discuss mental health issues in state prisons.

 

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Legislature Needs to Fund Prison Reform

The biggest threat to public safety looms over our great state of Alabama like a storm cloud. Our prison system is grossly over capacity, doesn’t rehabilitate those who need it the most and places a burden on our parole officers and other officials who can’t handle the unnecessarily high-intake volume.

The good news is that the Legislature already has taken steps to address those problems, and we have the opportunity to ensure proper funding in the current special legislative session to make sure these reforms begin to take hold.

Last year, Gov. Robert Bentley appointed a task force to identify the most egregious problems and their underlying causes in our prison system. The task force recommended immediate sentencing reform, information sharing systems and finding a more effective means of punishment that emphasizes community protection and rehabilitation. These findings reflect an endemic problem in our misguided incarceration policies: one that locks people up with little care, then lets them go free, completely missing the mark on providing our fellow community members with the care they actually need to get better.

Most significant is the mental health treatment many need in the community. It is a problem that impacts everyone. The safety of our communities, the cost to taxpayers of locking people up and the well-being of corrections employees are all challenged by a system that was not designed to effectively provide mental health treatment.

In an unprecedented move by the Legislature in the regular session that ended in June, both sides of the aisle joined together to pass significant prison reform (Senate Bill 67). The legislation’s bipartisan support and its merits have earned Alabama praise from prison reform advocates all over the country. Democrats and Republicans can’t agree on much, but prison reform is definitely an area we all agree needs our focused attention.

Senate Bill 67 offers substantial and meaningful reform that will redefine our criminal justice system. Most importantly, it will work to identify those who need help and set them on the right path, rather than putting them behind bars and then back on our streets as repeat offenders.

The cost savings for taxpayers are significant and the implications for a more just society are priceless.

But this clearing in the storm will become the eye of a hurricane if the Legislature doesn’t act swiftly to pass a General Fund budget that fully funds prison reform and mental health services.

I reluctantly voted for the Senate budget in the August special session because I believed it was the best we could get under the circumstances. But I knew it both under-funded the prison reforms that SB67 called for and mental health. The latter shortfall would put enormous strain on county jails and the Department of Corrections, since experience shows that neither is properly equipped to provide inmates effective mental health services.

But the current special legislative session gives us another chance to make things right. If the elected officials of this self-proclaimed “10th Amendment state” don’t solve our own problems, the federal Department of Justice will swoop in and take over, at deep cost to Alabama’s taxpayers.

So, let us shine as an example of model reform for the rest of the country and follow through on the promise we made when we passed SB67. It’s time for legislators to stand up and accept the responsibility the people of Alabama gave us when they sent us to the Capitol. The Legislature should pass a budget that fully funds prison reform and provides adequate mental health care and treatment for those who need it most.

We have the power to create a better Alabama, and the time is now.

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