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Lawmakers Support Governor's Prison Plan

By Mike Cason,

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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Prison Reform Must Be Included in Alabama Budget

Guest opinion By Guest opinion 
on August 18, 2015 at 1:37 PM

By Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan -- Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Nolan is the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Three months ago, Alabama legislators set aside their partisan differences and passed landmark reform of the state's beleaguered criminal justice system (SB 67). This historic action drew national praise, highlighting Alabama as a state willing to tackle tough challenges with substantial reforms. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) put it well: "This is not about being Democrats; this is not about being Republicans. This is about being responsible for a problem our state faces." 

Conservative leaders around the country, including the members of the national Right on Crime movement, are impressed with Alabama's leadership. The Heritage Foundation summed up the situation: "Alabama is reforming its criminal justice system because a complex web of interconnected problems left it near implosion—a mess of spent money, wasted lives and broken families." 

However, we are concerned that the state's important reforms—along with the economic and public-safety benefits they will deliver for Alabamians—might never be implemented because they must be funded in the budget that will be debated in the upcoming special legislative session. 

And without the reforms, Alabama's prison system will continue to be dysfunctional and to put the public at risk.  

Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the nation, operating at 195 percent of capacity. The overcrowding is even worse than in California, where the federal courts took control of the prison system. 

"We don't want the federal government ruling our prison system, and we are dangerously close to becoming another California," says Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who sponsored the reform legislation. Conservatives are doing all they can to head off a federal takeover of Alabama's prisons, and the SB 67 reforms are key to keeping the federal government out of the state's operations. 

To avoid a federal takeover, the legislature established the Prison Reform Task Force that included state legislators, leaders in the criminal justice system, local and state judges, district attorneys, victims' rights groups and others to develop a new plan to reduce recidivism and maximize prison space for the most violent and dangerous offenders. 

The picture that emerged revealed problems extending far beyond an ailing prison system operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. The task force also found that offenders under supervision in the community—many of whom were considered a high risk to commit new crimes—were not receiving the oversight and treatment necessary to minimize recidivism. Why? Because individual probation and parole officers are struggling with huge caseloads averaging 200 offenders, an impossible load. 

In another disturbing finding, the task force learned that large numbers of people released from Alabama prisons were typically sent home with no follow-up supervision, despite research showing the importance of community oversight in the weeks and months just following incarceration. That's a clear threat to public safety. 

Based on their analysis, task force members developed a comprehensive set of proposals designed to reduce prison overcrowding and strengthen community-based supervision. The resulting bill, SB 67, relieves overcrowding by reserving costly prison beds for dangerous and repeat offenders, while holding low level offenders accountable in the community under supervision and drug tests where appropriate.  

The bill adds 100 additional parole officers to properly supervise those who are released. The bill also substantially increases funding for mental health treatment and substance abuse programs that have proven to be effective. 

The bill will was passed with overwhelming support by the legislature and signed by Governor Bentley in May. Projections show it will help the state avoid $380 million in prison construction and operations costs by FY2021. 

As we all know, such moments of unity are rare in politics. Let's make sure the dividends from this one aren't lost at the 11th hour. We must protect our conservative values—the ones that make us tough on crime, fiscally responsible and dedicated to preserving state autonomy. The legislature should ensure that any approved budget includes funding to support the reforms in SB 67. 

© 2015 All rights reserved.

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Ward Named Business Champion

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

PELHAM – Leadership on passing a bill aimed at preventing Alabama from becoming “a magnet for frivolous lawsuits” earned state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, with the Business Council of Alabama’s first Business Champion Award on June 24.

The Business Council presented Ward with the award, which came in the form of an engraved baseball bat, during a Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce meeting at the Pelham Civic Complex and Ice Arena.

The award came as a result of Ward’s efforts to overturn a 2013 Alabama Supreme Court decision allowing brand-name drug manufacturers to be held liable for physical injuries caused by a generic drug product the company neither made nor sold.

Ward sponsored a bill in the state Senate during this year’s regular legislative session doing away with the “innovator liability” theory, and the bill was later passed and signed into law.

Business Council of Alabama CEO William Canary presented Ward with the award, and said the legislation’s passage was a priority for the BCA this year.

“Due to a recent court decision, Alabama manufacturers were liable for products they didn’t make or sell,” Canary said. “We had to do something. Fortunately, senator Ward led the charge. It simply says ‘ If you didn’t make something, you won’t be held accountable for it.

“He certainly believes in miracles,” Canary said of Ward, noting the Alabaster senator is “one of the great leaders” in Alabama. “Look at what he has done this year alone on prison reform. These are types of individuals who display political courage.”

Ward said the bill’s passage will make Alabama a more business-friendly state.

“I think through the innovator liability and innovative prison reform, we are a state on the cutting edge of doing the right thing,” Ward said. “Business is good for Alabama. We should make it easier, not harder to do business in Alabama.”


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Ward Passes Open Meetings Act

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

MONTGOMERY – A bill to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act is headed back to the state Senate for final approval after it passed the Alabama House of Representatives on June 2.

The House voted 91-4 to pass the bill, which would restore the Open Meetings Act “to its original intent” if it is signed into law, according to the Alabama Press Association.

The Alabama Senate voted 30-0 to pass the bill on March 18, but because the House made some changes to the bill, it must go back to the Senate for final approval. If the Senate gives its final approval, the bill will move to Gov. Robert Bentley for his signature.

The Senate bill was sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, and the House bill was sponsored by Rep. Randy Davis, R-Daphne.

“This is an important step forward for open government in Alabama,” Alabama Press Association Executive Director Felicia Mason wrote in a statement. “Our lawmakers have sent a clear message that they support the public’s right to know, and that is important to every Alabama citizen.”

During last year’s session, the bill passed the state Senate, but remained in committee in the House of Representatives until the final days of the session.

According to the Press Association, Ward’s legislation became necessary after three Alabama Supreme Court rulings over the past two years severely crippled the existing law.

“Most damaging was the decision that essentially allowed for secret meetings as long as a quorum was not present,” read a previous APA statement. “In some cases, the public is only witness to a vote because all of the deliberation is done in small, serial meetings prior to a public meeting.”

Ward said one of the primary intents of the bill is to put an end to serial meetings.

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Ward Appointed to National Criminal Justice Board

NEW YORK, NY— Alabama State Senator Cam Ward has been appointed to the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center's Board of Directors. 

Sen. Ward joins a bipartisan group of 18 other legislative leaders, court officials, law enforcement executives, and members of several governors’ cabinets from corrections and health and human services agencies, to serve on the CSG Justice Center’s board. Together, they guide the center’s projects, including the National Reentry Resource Center, the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, and forthcoming initiatives in mental health and reentry and employment.

State officials across the country have used the findings and technical assistance provided through the CSG Justice Center to develop legislative initiatives. Congress has also worked closely with leaders of the board, drawing on recommendations from the CSG Justice Center to shape national policy.

“We are thrilled that Sen. Ward has been appointed to our board,” said Michael Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center. “He has consistently demonstrated leadership on public safety issues in Alabama, and his experience in the legislature is extremely valuable to our data-driven policy approach.”

Sen. Ward started his career as a lawyer who served the Alabama State bar on numerous committees, before being appointed Alabama Deputy Attorney General.

Later he worked as the Assistant Secretary of State dealing in election laws and corporate filings. In 2000, he was selected for a prestigious Marshall Memorial Fellowship in Europe. Shortly after that he was elected to the Alabama House of Representatives where he served two terms.

In 2010, he was elected to the State Senate where he has sponsored stronger ethic laws and is also chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

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