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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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Skyrocketing Prison Costs Have States Targeting Recidivsim & Sentencing Practices

It is not often that the American Civil Liberties Union and the Southern Poverty Law Center find common cause with conservative Republicans in Alabama. But on Tuesday, both sides will celebrate when Gov. Robert Bentley (R) signs legislation that will substantially cut the number of prisoners in state custody.

The legislation reflects a growing bipartisan consensus that a generation of tough-on-crime attitudes that dramatically increased the prison population has placed a burdensome strain on state budgets without actually achieving the goal of rehabilitating offenders. To reduce the number of offenders behind bars, both over the short and long terms, states like Alabama are reclassifying some minor crimes and spending more to make sure those who do wind up in prison don’t come back after their release.

Increase in prisoner population

The number of prisoners in state and federal prison has increased dramatically since 1978. Since 2003, populations have increased slightly.

“We’re finally seeing some recognition that mental health and drug abuse are a big part of the problem. And locking someone up and throwing away the key doesn’t solve that problem,” said state Sen. Cam Ward (R), lead sponsor of the bill Bentley will sign.

Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed a similar measure this year. Legislators in Nebraska and Washington State are working on their own bills, both of which are likely to pass before legislative sessions end later this year. Texas, North Carolina and Georgia have all passed similar reform measures in recent years.

In every case, criminal justice reform bills reduce the prison time for certain non-violent crimes and create alternative programs aimed at dissuading young offenders from a life of crime.

Alabama’s new law, for example, will allow prosecutors to send more offenders to boot camps, or to community corrections facilities. It also reclassifies minor drug possessions as Class D felonies, which would not qualify for prison time, and increases the number of parole officers on state payroll to provide post-incarceration supervision, which reduces recidivism rates.

The ultimate goal is to reduce prison populations and, eventually, to close prison facilities to save costs. The rapid growth of the prison population has spurred an equal explosion in the amounts states are spending. Those who study corrections budgets say labor costs — for prison staff, pensions and health care — make up the vast majority of prison costs. Those costs are rising, and fast, burdening states even further.

“Policymakers are not only concerned with the high current cost, they’re concerned about the bill that could come due,” said Marshall Clement, director of state initiatives at the Council of State Governments’ Justice Center.

Different labor laws drive grossly disproportional spending: Alabama shelled out an average of $17,285 per prisoner in fiscal 2010, according to the Vera Institute of Justice. New York, at the top end of the spectrum, spent $60,076 for each of its 59,237 inmates that year.

The political power of unions directly correlates to the amount states spend on their corrections employees, and thus the per-prisoner spending.“Particularly in the Northeast, states that have more union presence, as opposed to right-to-work states, are going to have higher wages and benefits,” said Christian Henrichson, who conducted the Vera Institute study. “The surest and safest way to cut budgets is to enact laws that reduce the prison population.”

In many states, the prison population is much higher than the capacity of the prison system itself. A 2014 survey by the Bureau of Justice Statistics found 28 states are holding more prisoners than their lowest estimated capacity. Alabama’s 26,271 prisoners were nearly double the 13,318 inmates the system was designed to hold. Delaware, Hawaii, Nebraska and North Dakota were all operating at more than 150 percent of capacity.

Alabama’s overcrowded prisons drove legislators to act: The federal government had threatened to take over the state’s prison system unless legislators acted to reduce overcrowding.

“We always pride ourselves on being a strong 10th Amendment Southern state,” Ward said. “We can’t have somebody else fix this for us.”

“The population drives the budget,” said Adam Gelb, a criminal justice expert who directs the Pew Charitable Trust’s Public Safety Performance Project. “You’d have to be naive to not realize that budget situations matter. The budget situation is bringing states to the table.”

The tough-on-crime era of the 1990s and early 2000s has not wholly given up its hold on state legislators, some of whom see little political benefit, and potentially significant political risk, in releasing more prisoners. But, supporters say, the policy benefits, both budgetary and in reducing recidivism, far outweigh the risks.

“Nobody gets votes based upon fixing prisons,” Ward said. “But I think it’s something we should be proud of.”

Reid Wilson covers national politics and Congress for The Washington Post. He is the author of Read In, The Post’s morning tip sheet on politics.
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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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Prison Reform Bill Receives Final Passage

By Kim Chandler Associated Press | Posted: Friday, May 8, 2015 5:15 am

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The Alabama Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards in an effort to relieve severe overcrowding in state prisons.

Alabama prisons house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold, a crowding level that has been called both dangerous and one that puts the state in danger of federal intervention.

"Public safety is first and foremost. It always has been. The system we've got right now does not work," said bill sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The approved legislation seeks to gradually reduce crowding over the next five years by steering low-level offenders away from prison with the creation of a new Class D felony category and making changes to probation and supervision to try to reduce recidivism.

"It is going to allow us to have real systemic reforms over a five or six year period. It won't happen immediately, but your legislature is finally doing something right in regards to prisons. If we do nothing, you can guarantee this: The federal government or federal officers will do it for us, and we should be ashamed as elected officials that we allowed that to happen," Ward said.

The House of Representatives passed the bill on a 100-5 vote. The state Senate voted 27-0 to go along with House changes. Gov Robert Bentley said he plans to sign the bill after a legal review.

"Today's passage of SB67 is a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama's criminal justice system," Bentley said.

The House also approved a related bill to steer $60 million for the construction of 1,500 to 2,000 new prison beds. That bill now moves to the Alabama Senate.

The two bills are designed to bring prison populations down to 137 percent capacity in the next five years, Ward said. That is a crowding level that federal courts have found acceptable when crowding lawsuits have been brought in other states.

The Alabama prison system was placed in federal receivership in the 1970's which led to a court-ordered release of inmates. The state prison system has been in an unfavorable spotlight again in recent years over overcrowding, low staffing levels and violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating conditions at the state's only prison for women after accusing the state of failing to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment. State inmates sued the state last year over medical care. Four inmates were killed over a 14-month prison at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. The facility was placed on lock down last month because of a riot.

The legislation was the product of a prison reform task force and crafted in conjunction with the Council of State Governments. Senators applauded Ward after passage of the bill he had worked on for the past year, balancing agreements with prosecutors, victims' advocates and others.

The bill would also:

— Provide for hiring more than 100 new probation officers. Currently probate and parole officer have caseloads of 200 people each. The hiring would take caseloads down to less than 100 each. The bill comes at an estimated annual price of $23 million, with much of the cost increase coming from hiring additional probation officers, Ward said.

— Mandate that people who commit technical parole violations, such as failing to show up for a drug test, would get a three-day stint in jail.

The legislation won praise from a group that often criticizes bills moving in the Alabama Legislature.

"The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious overincarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it," Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said.

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Compromise Being Worked For Probate Judges Bill

By Mary Sell Montgomery Bureau | Posted: Friday, April 24, 2015 12:00 am

MONTGOMERY — Compromises are being sought on a bill that would give Tennessee Valley probate judges significant raises, lawmakers said.

Senate Bill 369 and House Bill 447 would provide that probate judges starting in 2019 be paid based on a percentage of the salary of a state district court judge and according to county population. It also would provide for raises and higher pay based on years of service.

Local county officials this week called the legislation an unfunded mandate they can’t afford. The Association of County Commissioners of Alabama opposes it and spoke against it at a public hearing in the Statehouse this week.

The bill sponsor in the Senate, Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, said Thursday that “all interested parties” are now working on the legislation.

“We’ll try to have some sort of compromise and then will have a vote next week,” Whatley said.

His bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee.

“There is a dispute between the Alabama county commissioners association and the probate judges, obviously,” committee chairman Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said Thursday. “There have been a couple of compromises floated (Thursday) by the county commissioners association. It’s fluid and they’re still working on it. I think we could have something by next week that we can pass out of committee.”

He said one of the compromises included a staggered pay raise.

Supporters of the legislation said it’s needed because even though a 15-year-old act requires probate judges receive pay raises when county employees do, that hasn’t happened in all counties. They’re trying to bring uniformity to probate judges’ pay.

Under the original bill, in Morgan County, the new salary for the probate judge, assuming the current judge is re-elected, would be $123,111. That’s a $35,189 increase. Limestone County’s probate judge would earn $113,744, a $12,791 increase. In Lawrence County, the judge would earn $108,243 a year, an increase of almost $36,000.

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Southern Conservatives Leading the Way in Reducing Prison Overcrowding

What once was a dining hall at St. Clair Correctional Facility now houses 58 inmates with medical problems.

They sleep on rows of bunk beds a couple of feet apart, the room converted years ago to accommodate exploding prison populations.

Alabama’s prisons house nearly double the inmates they were designed for, according to U.S. Department of Justice data, making them the most overcrowded in the country.

And the state at the heart of the conservative Deep South is now seeking to tackle the problem with a bill to overhaul its justice system, following in the footsteps of neighbors such as Georgia.

In a reversal from the past, these changes have been driven by conservatives facing the fiscal realities of a swollen prison system and research showing the ineffectiveness of the status quo.

“We have been so ingrained into the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ ” thinking, said Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “That sounds good, but as a conservative I want to say, ‘Is that the best use of our tax dollars?’ ”

Ward piloted a bill through the Senate on a 31-2 vote that would, among other things, reduce sentences and make parole easier to come by for nonviolent offenders. Ward managed to placate all manner of interest groups along the way.

“He’s a magician,” said Janette Grantham, the state director of the influential advocacy group Victims of Crime and Leniency.

Tide swells across the South

But the political tide has been turning in the direction of change for a decade. From Texas to North Carolina to Georgia to — particularly galling for Alabamians — Mississippi, Southern states have taken turns revamping their policies.

“The South and Southeast in particular have been really at the forefront of criminal justice reform the past few years,” said Cara Sullivan, the director of the Justice Performance Project at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

It began in Texas, where then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a law in 2007 to spend $241 million on treatment and diversion programs rather than new prison beds. The next year ALEC, a group that designs model conservative legislation for states across the country, launched a working group on criminal justice featuring the key legislator behind Texas’ move.

“The fact that Texas did it first provides a little bit of political cover to other states to do it,” Sullivan said.

Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union had new allies in long-running fights against overincarceration.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the liberal Brennan Center for Justice said lawmakers want effective programs, and they took to heart research showing treatment for addiction or mental health problems and re-entry programs are more effective than long prison sentences in fighting recidivism.

“But we can’t ignore the influence of fiscal conservatives in this movement,” she said.

“Politicians no longer have to be scared to say they are smart on crime,” Eisen said. “Tough-on-crime rhetoric is not really rhetoric we’re seeing too much today.”

That was not the case in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the seeds were sown for much of the overcrowding seen today. Responding to increased crime rates and the national “War on Drugs,” state leaders in both parties passed mandatory minimums and “truth in sentencing” laws requiring inmates to serve most of their sentences before being eligible for parole. “Three strikes” laws imposed life sentences for multiple offenders and had backing from Bill Clinton’s White House.

The issue was a political cudgel, used most famously in the 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis by tying him to the case of a Massachusetts felon named Willie Horton who raped a woman after escaping during a weekend prison furlough.

But in the past decade, the pendulum swung back. Years of efforts in Texas — and vetoes by Perry — resulted in the 2007 law.

In 2011 North Carolina tackled its system with an overhaul along similar lines: more and better substance abuse and mental health treatment, guaranteed supervision for all felons after release from prison, and swift, short jail stays for probation violators, among other changes.

Three years later, the state’s prison population had fallen by 3,400, the state had closed 10 prisons and the crime rate had dropped by 11 percent.

In 2012 it was Georgia’s turn.

Gov. Nathan Deal pushed changes that allowed Georgia to divert more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds. A second phase involved a plan to keep young offenders out of juvenile lockups if they’ve been convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

The third part, which Deal launched last year, focuses on improving ways to rehabilitate inmates who are serving prison sentences and ease their transition as they re-enter society. He’s poured millions more into education programs at state prisons.

Maneuvering in Alabama

Alabama has had a slow build to its big legislative moment. The state’s prison system has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and a newspaper investigation documenting its ills.

The Legislature voted last year to create a task force to come up with recommendations. The task force delved into the issue with guidance from the Council of State Governments, which has advised several states on criminal justice. In January the group approved 12 pages of recommendations.

Ward molded them into a bill that cleared the Senate this month.

Many of the changes resemble those of Alabama’s neighbors, but the biggest single influence has been California — as a cautionary tale.

In 2009 a federal three-judge panel ordered California to slash its prison system by 40,000 inmates, a directive the state continues to struggle under.

Ward, the state senator leading the charge to overhaul Alabama’s criminal justice system, said the most frequent question he hears is: “Is this going to make sure that we don’t have a federal court intervene on what we’re doing?”

“That question by itself is good because that tells you people are worried about it,” Ward said. He added with a chuckle, referencing Alabama’s same-sex marriage controversy: “We are a state that traditionally says, ‘I don’t care what a federal court says.’ ”

California is required to reduce its population to 137.5 percent of its prisons’ designed capacity. Alabama would only get down to 162 percent of capacity by 2021 under its task force recommendations, according to the Council of State Governments.

Shay Farley, the legal director for the left-leaning Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, who served on the task force, said the bill could have a much bigger bang by making its sentence reductions apply retroactively, capturing people who are in prison now. Still, she said, the version that cleared the Senate and awaits changes in the House “makes great strides in the right direction.”

A further complication lies in the funding. While Ward’s bill would bring down costs in the long run to house prisoners, it would require immediate funds to hire more parole officers and other changes. The Legislature is still working through a general fund budget amid a heated debate about whether to increase taxes.

Inmates in the St. Clair prison and its new warden, DeWayne Estes, are keeping an eye on their Legislature.

“Either we need more funding if everyone continues to lock up at the same rate, or they’re going to have to do something with the number of people they send to prison,” Estes said in his ninth day on the job, his office still stacked with boxes. “It’s a simple numbers game.”

Estes presented his numbers matter-of-factly. He’s over design capacity, but not as badly as some other prisons in the system. It puts an extra strain on the kitchen and laundry facilities, but it’s not overwhelming. He has 103 fewer correction officers than he needs because he has trouble hiring and retaining qualified officers.

As Estes walked into the prison one recent morning, an old man hobbled on a cane in the other direction, about to be released back into the world. Estes shook the man’s hand and wished him well.

Told by a visitor that his burden had been lightened by one that day, Estes shook his head.

“We’ll get another one in the next door.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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Business Community Announces Support for Prison Reform

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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Open Meetings Act Passes the Senate

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

MONTGOMERY – State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he “feels good about where we’re headed” with a bill to strengthen the state’s Open Meetings Act after the bill failed to pass during the 2014 session.

The Alabama Senate voted 30-0 on March 18 to pass the Ward-sponsored bill, which would restore the Open Meetings Act “to its original intent,” according to the Alabama Press Association.

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.

“The House did pass it last year, and it came back to the Senate. But we just ran out of time,” Ward said during a March 20 interview. “By moving it so fast so early this year, we are hoping we will have more time to get it passed.”

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 an 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.

“We are really hoping to crack down on those serial meetings and make government more open to everyone,” Ward said. “I think we’ve got an excellent chance of passing this bill this year.”

The House version, HB195, is sponsored Rep. Randy Davis of Daphne. Davis is chairman of the Constitution, Campaign and Election Committee.

“Our Senate is sending a strong message to Alabamians about their commitment to openness and transparency by passing this bill during Sunshine Week,” APA Executive Director Felicia Mason wrote in a statement. “We applaud all Senators who supported this effort, and especially Sen. Ward who has been a staunch sponsor over the past two sessions.”

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Prison Reform Through a Conservative Lens

By: Senator Cam Ward, Representative Mike Jones, and Katherine Robertson

As Alabama’s Legislative Session gets closer, the momentum for prison reform is at an all-time high. The current prison overcrowding crisis provides a great opportunity for the Legislature to address a problem that has increased in urgency for years. It is the goal of conservative leaders in the Legislature to see our prison problems addressed through principle-based solutions, not irresponsible quick-fixes. Specifically, reform proposals designed to alleviate our prison crisis should achieve three objectives: improve public safety, institute measures for accountability and cost-efficiency, and foster a heightened level of personal responsibility from any individual who passes through the system. 

Improve Public Safety     The central role of government is to protect the lives, liberty, and property of its citizens; thus, the effectiveness of a correctional system should first be measured by the safety of the public. As Alabama’s prison data is analyzed, one of the key findings is that our pardons and parole system lacks the resources and personnel to best determine when an individual should be kept behind bars and when they should be released. Further, the level of supervision that individuals receive upon release from prison is not always tailored to their risk of reoffending. This keeps recidivism rates higher than they would otherwise be and results in an elevated threat to the public.  For low-risk offenders, spending extensive time behind bars can be counter to improved public safety, in addition to the high cost. When limited corrections resources are mostly eaten up by the high cost of incarceration, we end up releasing individuals with addictions or those lacking the basic skills required to succeed in society, to the detriment of public safety.

Cost-efficiency and Accountability    Eliminating waste and controlling government spending is the overarching goal of every conservative policymaker. Periodically, every agency, office, or program receiving public funds should be reviewed for effectiveness and efficiency.  In a way, the demand to reduce our prison population requires that we apply these same principles to the oft-overlooked corrections system. Thanks to the efforts of the Prison Reform Task Force and the Council of State Governments, for the first time in a long time, specific programs and procedures within the system have been scrutinized to determine whether the stated purposes of reduced recidivism and improved public safety are being served. There is a clear need to make additional investments into our system, but this must be coupled with diverting resources away from programs or processes that aren’t achieving these purposes. The goal of these reforms should not necessarily be to spend less, but to spend more wisely.

Foster Personal Responsibility    Because true freedom requires personal responsibility, government should aim to promote this, rather than suppress it. Our system unintentionally inhibits personal responsibility by churning offenders in an out of the prison system, only to eventually send them out to become prisoners of government dependence. Individuals who leave prison with addictions, no education, or no basic life skills are amongst those who most frequently recidivate. Once they are released, they lack the foundation to succeed and often wind up impoverished. This results in their reliance, or their families’ reliance, on government assistance programs at further cost to taxpayers.

For those prisoners who will eventually be released from prison, it is worth the State’s investment to provide opportunities for these individuals to reenter society under strict supervision, to seek treatment for addiction or mental health issues, or to develop an employable skill—after serving an appropriate sentence behind bars.  A stronger system of supervision also instills personal responsibility by setting clear expectations are set and ensuring that consequences are uniformly applied and immediately experienced.  There are a number of community corrections and reentry programs in Alabama that employ similar practices with great success and should be duplicated in other parts of the state.

If careful consideration of each reform proposal is given in light of these guiding principles— public safety, accountability and cost-efficiency, and personal responsibility—we have every reason to expect a final product that Alabamians can be proud of. While no single piece of legislation can solve the challenges brought about over several decades, we are committed to substantive reforms that will represent a leap, not just a step, forward to a prison system that will both preserve our state sovereignty and our state budget and will better protect the people of Alabama.

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