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Much to be Thankful For

By Cam Ward / Guest Columnist With the election season over and Thanksgiving approaching, now would be a good time for all of us to pause and remind ourselves of everything we have to be thankful for.  Sometimes partisan elections can cause us all to become cynical of the world we live in. That is the nature of the democratic process; however, we should always remember that regardless of election outcomes, we all still have so many blessings to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of America’s most preeminent holidays tracing back to 1621 when the first dinner of thanks was celebrated by pilgrims and Native Americans. After nearly being wiped out by drought and poor crop harvest, the pilgrims prayed to God for help. Their prayers were answered in the form of rain and a good crop harvest with the help of Native Americans in the area. As a celebration of this good fortune, 90 people including the local Native Americans held a feast to thank God for their blessings. It was certainly a challenging time but they realized how much they had to be thankful for. While many of us are not faced with such dramatic circumstances as the pilgrims, there are still many things to be thankful for. First and foremost, we should be thankful that we live in a country where we can engage in such a spirited political discussion.  I suspect the people of North Korea and Cuba would love to just taste one day of such freedom. The freedom of speech, to practice whatever religion you choose, and to live as you see fit is something I believe we can all be thankful for. Yes, we have our differences, but they are only a shadow of the brutal repression that occurs in so many other countries. While our civil liberties should be cherished, let us also remember that Thanksgiving is a time to re-engage with our family and friends. Too often, during the hustle of our daily lives we take our loved ones for granted. Taking this time to remind ourselves that family and God are two of the most important factors of our lives should be a priority for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving and may your family have a wonderful holiday. - See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/11/25/much-to-be-thankful-for/#sthash.mRmZnMjm.dpuf

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Alabama Has Long, Hard Road to Reform Judicial System

It’s no secret that Alabama’s broken criminal justice system is in the early stages of reform.

But if that reform doesn’t happen to the extent it needs to, officials say the result could be financially crippling for Alabama. The change, however, isn’t going to be easy.

For the past several months, the Prison Reform Task Force, led by state Sen. Cam Ward, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have been working together to study the system, come up with policy recommendations and effectively pinpoint funding needs for improvement.

Underfunded courts, overcrowded prisons and limited rehabilitation services for offenders are all major contributors to the failing system. And up until recent sentencing reform for drug and property criminals, that was part of the problem too.

One of the task force’s main goals — which was also the catalyst that drove the movement toward much-needed reforms — is reducing the capacity of Alabama’s overcrowded prisons, which are at about 190 percent of what they were designed for.

But reversing a criminal justice culture rooted in harsh punishments is not going to be easy for a conservative state that faces more challenges than most other states in the country.

“It’s going to be a huge uphill challenge,” Ward said. “It’s going to be very hard to push through because you have to change a lot of mindsets about how you deal with criminal justice. The goal is simple — you want less crime being committed. You want to make sure public safety comes first.”

Ward said incarceration by itself isn’t the only solution, and that concept is difficult to make people understand. He said investing in programs to help offenders get the services they need will, over time, improve public safety and lower recidivism.

“Long term, we want to reduce crime,” Ward said. “The way you do that is to make sure there’s less incentive and make sure the punishment fits the crime.”

Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who isn’t on the task force but has been to all the task force meetings, said he’s been a defense lawyer, a prosecutor and a circuit judge since he started his career in 1976.

“I consider the present criminal justice system to be unfair in its application,” Moore said. “We have people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim. The habitual felony law has been misused to add extremely long sentences that are unjustified.”

Moore said he has no doubt that the criminal justice system needs reform. He said he believes a major part of the prison overcrowding problem is unfair sentences that have been handed down over the years.

“One of the principal ingredients in justice is fairness,” he said. “Fairness to the victims, the defendants and society. We need to look at all aspects of it.”

Although states such as North Carolina and Texas have implemented reforms that have started to improve their criminal justice systems, none of those states had as many challenges as Alabama does, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

“We’re in the worst situation of any state I’ve seen out there,” Ward said.

Wright said prisons in those states were better staffed, better funded and didn’t have an overcrowding crisis. Alabama’s parole and probation officers also have the highest number of caseloads in the country, he said. Each officer has about 220 cases to manage.

“We are in such a system crisis,” Wright said. “It isn’t about just (corrections), pardons and paroles or the court system. The entire system is underfunded and understaffed. It’s going to take a large, comprehensive, holistic package of reforms to move the system to a more manageable level.”

And that is going to require money, Wright said.

Although state leaders are hoping significant changes can be made without money, Ward said that’s not the case. With a dwindling General Fund, the state is already facing a budget crisis in 2015.

At some point, money will have to be spent on new construction to replace some of the old prisons and improving drug and mental health programming for offenders, Ward said. Right now, resources in the state are scarce, especially in rural communities, he said.

“Before you start throwing money at a problem, there’s got to be some structural reforms put into place to make sure you’re spending money the best way possible,” Ward said.

Andy Barbee, the lead researcher for the CSG, said even if Alabama reduces its prison population by 3,000 or 4,000 inmates, the system would still be at about 175 percent capacity. If significant changes aren’t made, the state will likely face expensive lawsuits that could lead to federal intervention, he said.

Wright said the goal is to change lives, change behavior and change the system. In order to do that, there will need to be a continued stream of adequate funding for courts, prisons, community supervision and rehabilitative programming.

The state has exhausted its “free” reform options, Wright said. The change to presumptive sentencing guidelines for drug and property crimes was a huge step, but it won’t be enough to significantly reduce the prison population.

Managing the prison population also won’t change behavior or reduce recidivism, he said.

Wright said the majority of people who come to prison have a great deal of unmet needs — substance abuse, mental health problems and educational gaps. When you take those people and put them into the community, their needs are still not being met, and it’s much more expensive to provide those services behind bars.

“It’s not a matter of not having (services),” he said. “It’s a matter of which is more effective and which is cheaper.”

Ward said part of the problem is that community supervision has to work. The concept is meant to make sure offenders stay clean and on the right path.

Meridith Barnes, at assistant attorney general and legal counsel for the sentencing commission, said the mindset that you’re protecting the public because you’re locking all the criminals up needs to change.

The right way to approach community supervision is to try to help individuals make life changes.

“It’s a resources issue,” she said. “The state is going to have to find a way to make it a reality. Once we’re there, everyone will see the benefits.”

Barnes said once there are more resources and infrastructure to help people, the pardons and parole board is naturally going to parole more people so they can benefit from those programs. Right now, a lot of people need to get programming while they’re in prison because resources outside are so limited.

“At some point, we’re going to have to decide what really matters and where we’re going to put funding instead of recycling the problem over and over,” Barnes said. “If our policy makers view it as a serious issue, they’re going to have to find money to do it.”

Barbee said before the 2015 legislative session, the CSG research team is going to put together a package of recommended bills and policy changes for the task force. He said it’s not going to be easy to get everyone to agree.

“We can’t expect every single person on this task force will be jumping for joy with the proposals at the end of the day,” Barnes said.

Barnes said because the task force has leaders from different agencies and interests, people automatically look at the problems from their agency’s perspective.

“It’s important for task force members to get past it to do what’s best for the state, even if it means that agency has to change something,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re going to get everyone to buy in and I don’t think everyone’s going to agree at the State House either.”

In the past, legislators have tended to shy away from criminal justice reform after finding out how politically unpopular those efforts are, Wright said.

“It’s really easy to talk in general terms about support for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform,” Wright said. “But once people see the details and what’s involved, their support tends to wane.”

Ward said the process of reform — and reducing the prison population — will take years.

“It’s not going to take one year,” he said. “It look us a long time to get in the mess we’re in.”

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Alabaster Named Most Conservative City in U.S.

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

A national website has named Alabaster as the “Best city for conservatives” in the nation, citing the city’s “commitment to being fiscally conservative” and its residents’ willingness to support conservative political candidates.

Livability.com released its list of the best city for conservatives in the nation on Oct. 21, and ranked Alabaster at the top of the list.

“The last time a Republican presidential candidate lost the vote in Alabaster was in 1968, when most of Alabama voters backed Governor George Wallace, who ran as a Democrat,” read Alabaster’s entry on the list. “Alabaster is the home of Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican who some political observers predict will run for governor.”

Ward said he was “flattered” to be mentioned in the list, but was quick to shine the spotlight on Alabaster’s municipal leadership.

“I think this speaks volumes about the style of government we have here in Alabaster,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said during an Oct. 21 interview. “I’m glad to be mentioned on the list, but I think it says more about what the city has done on a local level.”

The city’s entry on the list praised the Alabaster City Council’s fiscal conservatism, and the city’s recently passed 2015 fiscal year budget.

“It most recently passed a spending budget that would increase the city’s fund balance by $400,000 based on revenue projects,” read the list.

The list also noted longtime U.S. Congressman Spencer Bachus, R-Alabama, and his connection to Alabaster.

“Spencer Bachus, a rank-and-file Republican according to GovTrack, represents Alabama’s 6th Congressional District, which includes Alabaster,” read the city’s entry. “Bachus was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1992. The American Conservative Union gave Bachus a lifetime rating of 92, indicating a consistent conservative voting record.”

According to the Livability list, residents in Alabaster are likely to “drive a Cadillac, eat at Chic-fil-A, shop at Sam’s Club, watch ‘The Bachelorette’ and read ‘Good Housekeeping.’”

To view Alabaster’s entry on the list, visit Livability.com/best-places/top-10/best-cities-for-conservatives/best-cities-for-conservatives/2014/alabaster.

- See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/10/21/alabaster-named-best-city-for-conservatives/#sthash.eq40Mkgr.dpuf

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Alabama Launches Landmark Victims' Notification System

MONTGOMERY, AL.- Alabama crime victims will now have better access to information about the offenders who harmed them or their loved ones, as an innovative electronic notification system was unveiled today at the State Capitol. Members of the Task Force have been developing “AlabamaCAN” (the Alabama Crime Victim Automated Notification system) demonstrated the public website at hhtp://victims.alabama.gov, which is just on element of the project that maximizes today’s technology. With 1 out of ever 4 citizens being a victim of crime in their lifetime, AlabamaCAN will be a valuable tool.

 

In 2011, the Legislature approved a bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward that outlined the requirements of the new notification system, and it established an Implementation Task Force that eventually included 8 state agencies and 2 crime victim advocates. Considered by many stakeholders to be the most significant crime victims’ legislation to pass in 20 years, the 2011 law primarily addresses how notice will be provided for upcoming parole/pardon hearings. But AlabamaCAN may one day extend further to provide notice at additional points in the criminal justice system. 

 

Since 1984, the Board of Pardons and Paroles has been required to locate victims of certain violent crimes (and/or immediate family members), and send notices of upcoming hearings via certified USPS mail, return-receipt requested. As a result, victims have frequently appeared at hearings and voiced their concerns about an offender’s possible release or communicated their thoughts to the Board in writing.

 

But the 1984 law had its limitations. For instance, the first effort to locate a victim often occurred 5,10 or 15 years after a violent crime, when many names/addresses have changed. Therefore, numerous crime victims were not receiving notice, despite the Parole Board’s due diligence to locate the. And the 1984 law only required notice for the victim who was harmed (or the next of kin in homicide), while violent crime often has a vast ripple-effect that touches many family members and friends. Each year, more then 6,000 parole hearings are held in Alabama.

 

The 2011 law creates a more efficient system which is available to additional victims and members of the public. Plus, probation officers will assist in capturing victim’s contact information much earlier in certain cases, and will enter data in AlabamaCAN when defendants are sentences. And, using the public website, victims are encouraged to keep their information up-to-date and choose how they want to be notified about hearing, as notice can now be delivered via email, text message or automated phone calls (but victims named in an indictment or next of kin in homicide still receive notice via USPS mail). Addresses can also be updated using driver’s license info, if the victim selects that feature. Or a victim may decide to “opt out” and not be notified of any future hearings.

With the assistance of a federal grant, the following state agencies have served on the Task Force developing the AlabamaCAN system: the Board of Pardons and Paroles, District Attorneys’ Association, Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center, Administrative Office of the Courts, Department of Corrections, Attorney General’s Office, Alabama Crime Victims Compensation, and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency. Additionally, the Task Force included crime victim advocates Darlene Hutchinson Biehl and Wanda Jones Miller, who were appointed by Attorney General Luther Strange.

 

Victims or others interested in more information on this revolutionary, user-friendly system can contact the Board of Pardons and Paroles at 334-353-7771 or visit http://victims.alabama.gov.

 

WHAT PUBLIC OFFICIALS & STAKEHOLDERS ARE SAYING:

 

Attorney General Luther Strange: AlabamaCAN will move victim notification forward by empowering victims with the knowledge and opportunity to access inmate information 24/7 and to ensure that their voices may be heard at any parole hearing for the inmate who harmed them or their loved ones, This is one more way that Alabama is honoring the rights of all victims. I want to thank the members of the Task Force for their service in this important project.”

 

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore: “I’m pleased the Alabama Administrative Office of Courts could play a role in the creation of this innovation program, which capitalizes on advancements in technology to more efficiently protect victim’s right to know and to remain involved in the parole hearing process.”

 

Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee: “Protecting the rights of victims should always be the top priority of lawmakers, I am proud to have worked with victims’ advocates to pass this bill which will ensure that the victims of violence receive proper notification on the status of criminals who commit these terrible crimes.”

 

Rep. Paul DeMarco, chairman of the House Judiciary Committee:  “Lawmakers must always put victims first. We must continue to work to advocate the protection and needs of victims and their families in Alabama. I have been proud to support this innovative notification system in the Legislature and look forward to how it will benefit our great state and its citizens for years to come. “

 

Robert Longshore, member of the Board of Pardons and Paroles: “Today serves as an example of what can happen when criminal justice stakeholders collaborate on an idea and keep working persistently to achieve a goal each believes will move Alabama forward. With the launch of AlabamaCAN, we have made Alabama an example to other states in the area of victim notification.”

 

Barry Matson, deputy director of the Alabama District Attorneys’ Association: “This landmark project is solid proof that groups and agencies with diverse missions can come together for the common good of the State of Alabama and victims of crime to create and implement a cutting-edge and cost-effective program that will benefit Alabama for generations. This is good for victims and last enforcement and all of Alabama, It just makes sense.”

 

Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas: “As last enforcement professionals, public safety is our top priority, and that includes recognizing victims’ rights and keeping victims informed. As Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections, I am pleased to support the groundbreaking resource for victims.”

 

Darlene Hutchinson Biehl, crime advocate appointed to the Task Force: “When a victim’s life has been shattered by violent crime, they experience so many emotions. The trauma, anguish and confusion can be so overwhelming, and they are often desperate for public officials to come along side of them and stand in the gap for them. The AlabamaCAN system is the perfect example of that occurring. Not only have public officials been valuable partners in developing this system, but we’ve built in many safety nets in hopes that victims’ participation in the criminal justice system to hold offenders accountable for their actions. It is truly a great day for Alabama.”

 

Wanda Jones Miller, Crime advocate appointed to the Task Force: “This important law enables victims of crime to feel secure having the information regarding their offender a mouse click away. At the times when information is important, whether it be at midnight or a holiday, a victim can obtain the knowledge they need to make them feel safe and secure. For victims of crime, this is priceless legislation.”

 

Miriam Shehane, founder of VOCAL and commissioner for the Alabama Crime Victims Compensation Commission: “In 1984, crime victims worked tirelessly to get legislation passed to inform them of when their offenders are being considered for parole. Now, 30 years later, changes are being made on how these notifications are sent. Victim advocates have worked closely with Parole Board to ensure victims will have the right to select the mode of notification that is best for them. This is exciting news. The Parole Board is to be commended fort asking all precautions that the rights for crime victims have not been jeopardized.”

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Economic Development Evolves But Grows in Shelby County

The term “Economic Development” is something that is in the eye of the beholder depending on where you live.  In some communities this means a growth of manufacturing jobs, while in others it is a sign of growing retail choices for consumers.  In reality it is dictated by the needs of the community.

Over the last 15 years I have had the opportunity to work with the City of Alabaster on economic development projects ranging from retail development to industrial distribution centers.  While the business of economic development has evolved it has also grown tremendously in our entire regional community. With the lowest unemployment rate in the state, Shelby County has seen its economy evolve in such a way that allows to it be creative in our recruitment strategies. A good economy is one that does not rely solely on one sector or another but instead strikes a balance. 

As we have worked hard to develop retail development such as the shopping centers on interstate 65, there has also been a strong emphasis on recruiting office space development and industrial distribution centers.  While retail developments like Dunkin Donuts, hotels, and chain restaurants provide instant gratification for consumers, long-term economic growth must also include a support for existing business and an emphasis on jobs oriented industries. 

By using data driven models and modern technology, Alabaster has developed online tools to promote existing businesses as well as offer a window to the outside world about the economic benefits of doing business in our community. Whether it is an interactive web site designed to provide developers with the most up to date information about our community, a QR code system on employee business cards or an active social media advertising campaign, the world of economic development has changed for the good.

In the end, a good economic development strategy still depends on the quality of the local officials involved in this effort. It is teamwork that requires a conscience effort of cooperation among man levels of government. In the next several months as new retail and commercial businesses announce they are opening in our community we should always remember that the ability to development new strategies while maintaining good local leadership is the key to continuing strong economic development in our local community.

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Governor Bentley Says State Faces Budget Crisis

Charles J. Dean | cdean@al.com By Charles J. Dean
MONTGOMERY, Alabama – Every time Gov. Robert Bentley talks about a looming budget crisis facing the state in 2015 he says all options will be on the table to fix it when the Legislature meets in March.

Except the governor, who is also a candidate for reelection, does not really mean "all options" are on the table. The option not on the table for the Republican governor or the Republican-dominated Legislature is tax increases.
That is hardly a surprising position for Republicans in a deep red state. But what always provokes a bit of head scratching is Bentley's view that a deficit some estimates put at $200 million in the state's General Fund budget will not be fixed without "new" revenue. "...Governor you said you have cut and cut and you've streamlined. Don't you need additional money, new money from some source?" I asked Bentley last week. His answer was yes. "We are going to need additional revenue, yes. But I don't know where that is yet. But I do not support tax increases."
Bentley's stock answer on the campaign trail to where new money might come from is to say that a group of key state leaders are studying that very question and he expects them to make recommendations to him in the next few months.

"I really have not been given any recommendations yet. I'm waiting," said Bentley last week after speaking to a meeting of retired state workers worried that budget problems will result in higher health insurance costs and threatened pensions. "I'm sure there will be many, many recommendations that we will look at but I haven't been given those yet. I hope to be given those over the next couple of months," added the governor. That means don't expect to hear anything specific about budget fixes until after the Nov. 4 election.

There have been hints about some of the possible options that could come Bentley's way. Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, the leader of the senate and one of those looking at ways to fix the budget, has talked about efforts to remove so-called "earmarks" on some state dollars. Earmarks designate by law some streams of tax revenue for specific purposes, most especially for public schools and colleges. Another possible option Marsh has mentioned includes combining the state's two budgets, one that goes to pay for education needs and the general fund budget which pays for everything else.

It is that budget that is in crisis.

Another option might include elimination of some tax deductions and exemptions. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said none of those possible solutions will be easy to muster enough votes in the Legislature despite the fact the GOP holds solid majorities in both houses of the body.


"When you are talking about eliminating earmarks, especially those that go to support education and eliminating some tax deductions and exemptions, you are talking about doing things that will likely results in a firestorm," said Ward. "Agricultural interests, forestry interests, public schools, universities, businesses both big and small all have earmarks, deductions and exemptions. You can expect a heck of a fight."

Ward said he appreciates that the work of trying to figure out solutions to the general fund woes is hard and take time. Still Ward said he wished that the recommendations could be made before the election or at least there were more discussion of what the possible solutions are.

"We are facing serious problems, especially funding prisons and Medicaid which eat up sixty-five percent of the general fund," said Ward. "I think we need to discuss this with voters and I appreciate it that the governor is at least pointing out we have a serious problem. But I think we need to go beyond that and talk about what the solutions might be because none of them will be easy."

© 2014 AL.com. All rights reserved.
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State Must Tackle Drug Epidemic to Solve Prison Crisis

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

Alabama must combat a growing “drug epidemic” if it is to reduce overcrowding in the state’s prisons, an Alabaster state senator said after attending a recent national criminal justice policy summit.

Ward
Ward

The Council of State Governments Justice Center gathered state and local leaders from across the nation―including respected legislators, court and law enforcement officials and cabinet secretaries―to discuss complex criminal justice policies at its annual Board of Directors meeting during the week of Sept. 17 in Memphis, Tenn.

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, participated in discussions among the bipartisan group of board members who gathered to determine the best ways to take on issues such as lowering recidivism rates among people who were formerly incarcerated, improving law enforcement’s response to people with mental disorders and reducing schools’ dependence on suspension and expulsion in response to student misconduct.

After returning from the meeting, Ward said he obtained several ideas to help combat overcrowding in Alabama prisons, which are at nearly double their capacity.

“There were a couple of good ideas that I think can work here,” Ward said during a Sept. 23 interview. “We’ve got to strengthen our work release programs, we’ve got to tackle the drug epidemic and we’ve got to strengthen our alternative sentencing programs like our drug and mental health courts.”

In addition to reviewing the status of these respective projects, board members provided input to help shape the Justice Center’s future priorities. In planning for the upcoming year, the group examined options for helping state and local leaders undertake issues related to employment challenges for people with criminal records; reducing the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders in jails; and improving data collection in states’ juvenile justice systems.

Ward said speaking with the bipartisan group of legislators from across the nation allowed everyone in attendance to share ideas and best practices when dealing with prison-related issues.

“We shared some very useful information and best practices,” Ward said. “It’s a good way of not reinventing the wheel. You can see what has worked, and what hasn’t worked, in other parts of the country.”

- See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/09/24/ward-state-must-tackle-drug-epidemic/#sthash.Pp6wFngm.dpuf

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National Bipartisan Group Meets to Discuss Direction of Cutting-Edge Criminal Justice Policies

MEMPHIS, Tenn.—The Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center gathered state and local leaders from across the nation―including respected legislators, court and law enforcement officials and cabinet secretaries―to discuss complex criminal justice policies at its annual Board of Directors meeting this week.

Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward participated in discussions among the bipartisan group of board members who gathered to determine the best ways to advance the latest evidence-based strategies on issues such as lowering recidivism rates among people who were formerly incarcerated, improving law enforcement’s response to people with mental disorders, and reducing schools’ dependence on suspension and expulsion in response to student misconduct. 

“The CSG Justice Center remains at the forefront of advancing data-driven, consensus-based approaches to increasing public safety. Because of their research and analysis, Alabama was able to launch a dialogue about the criminal justice system in our state with a true eye toward justice reinvestment legislation,” said Sen. Ward. “It was very helpful these past few days to meet and discuss in detail innovative ideas that leading policymakers are advancing in their states across the U.S.”

The past year has been the CSG Justice Center’s busiest and most productive since its inception, working with state and local leaders on a variety of projects, including the release of The School Discipline Consensus Report, working to pass justice reinvestment legislation in Idaho and Michigan while also launching new justice reinvestment projects in Alabama, Nebraska and Washington; collaborating with the White House to ignite a public dialogue between government officials and business leaders to address employment challenges for people with criminal records; and launching the organization’s juvenile justice work with the release of a 50-state survey (“Measuring and Using Juvenile Recidivism Data to Inform Policy, Practice, and Resource Allocation”) and a white paper (Core Principles for Reducing Recidivism and Improving Other Outcomes for Youth in the Juvenile Justice System).

In addition to reviewing the status of these respective projects, board members provided input to help shape the Justice Center’s future priorities. In planning for the upcoming year, the group examined options for helping state and local leaders undertake issues related to employment challenges for people with criminal records; reducing the prevalence of mental and substance use disorders in jails; and improving data collection in states’ juvenile justice systems.

“I greatly appreciate the unique perspective provided by Senator Ward,” said Michael D. Thompson, director of the CSG Justice Center. “We are fortunate to have the senator as a part of the dedicated group of talented experts represented on our board.”

 

The Council of State Governments Justice Center is a national nonprofit organization that serves policymakers at the local, state, and federal levels from all branches of government. It provides practical, nonpartisan advice and evidence-based, consensus-driven strategies to increase public safety and strengthen communities. For more information about the Justice Center, visit www.csgjusticecenter.org.

 

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Economic Development Still Number One Priority

The term “Economic Development” is something that is in the eye of the beholder depending on where you live.  In some communities this means a growth of manufacturing jobs, while in others it is a sign of growing retail choices for consumers.  In reality it is dictated by the needs of the community.

 

Over the last 15 years I have had the opportunity to work with the City of Alabaster on economic development projects ranging from retail development to industrial distribution centers.  While the business of economic development has evolved it has also grown tremendously in our entire regional community. With the lowest unemployment rate in the state, Shelby County has seen its economy evolve in such a way that allows to it be creative in our recruitment strategies. A good economy is one that does not rely solely on one sector or another but instead strikes a balance. 

 

As we have worked hard to develop retail development such as the shopping centers on interstate 65, there has also been a strong emphasis on recruiting office space development and industrial distribution centers.  While retail developments like Dunkin Donuts, hotels, and chain restaurants provide instant gratification for consumers, long-term economic growth must also include a support for existing business and an emphasis on jobs oriented industries. 

 

By using data driven models and modern technology, Alabaster has developed online tools to promote existing businesses as well as offer a window to the outside world about the economic benefits of doing business in our community. Whether it is an interactive web site designed to provide developers with the most up to date information about our community, a QR code system on employee business cards or an active social media advertising campaign, the world of economic development has changed for the good.

 

In the end, a good economic development strategy still depends on the quality of the local officials involved in this effort. It is teamwork that requires a conscience effort of cooperation among man levels of government. In the next several months as new retail and commercial businesses announce they are opening in our community we should always remember that the ability to development new strategies while maintaining good local leadership is the key to continuing strong economic development in our local community.

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Ward Written Testimony Before US House Judiciary Sub-Committee

Opening Statement Regarding Prison Reform in the States

 Mr. Chairman, members of the committee thank you for giving me this opportunity to discuss the challenges that both the state and federal corrections systems in the United States face today.

I am in a unique position because I come from a state that faces the most serious challenges of any state in the union with regard to our Corrections system.  This problem however, presents my state with some opportunities to address our challenges with meaningful reform that has already taken root in Alabama. The State of Alabama faces a great crisis in our Department of Corrections.  At 192% capacity, we are the most overcrowded prison system in the country.

Despite this high incarceration rate, Alabama still has the 8th highest violent crime rate in the United States.  This ranking, as well as the high incarceration rate, is evidence that our current model is not working. In light of the Plata decision regarding California’s Corrections system, it is estimated that in order for Alabama to achieve a Department of Corrections level of 137% capacity, we would need to spend an estimated $600,000,000 on prison construction. This amount of spending would be fiscally irresponsible and represent over one-half of our entire General Fund Budget. Spending your way out of this problem is out of the question.

In addition to construction costs, other ideas besides “spending your way out of this problem” must be considered. Alabama currently spends approximately $42.50 a day per inmate, ranking us the lowest in the country on spending. Bringing Alabama’s per-prisoner spending up to what Georgia or Florida spend per-prisoner would require a system-wide 20% increase in per-prisoner spending. Raising Alabama’s per-prisoner spending to what Arizona spends would require an over 40% increase in per-prisoner spending.

The prison overcrowding crisis has resulted in a bipartisan effort to address criminal justice issues to ultimately improve public safety, hold offenders accountable for their criminal conduct, reduce recidivism, and determine where the State’s limited resources can be best spent to accomplish these goals. 

Alabama’s criminal justice crisis is complex and deeply rooted and there are no silver bullets to cure all that ails the system.  Retired Alabama Circuit Court Judge Joseph A. Colquitt recently summarized it best when he said, “It is vital we do not succumb to oversimplifying a complicated process and accepting easy answers.  In this complicated area of law, solutions that sound simple are invariably based upon limited information or faulty assumptions.” 

While the situation appears bleak, the State of Alabama has been involved in dedicated reform efforts for well over a decade finding solutions to help improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the State’s criminal justice system, most recently in the creation of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force.  This Task Force, created by Act 2014-11, was the result of a letter submitted by Governor Robert Bentley, Chief Justice Roy Moore, House of Representatives Speaker Mike Hubbard, Alabama Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas and myself requesting the expertise of the Bureau of Justice Assistance, the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Council of State Governments.  Alabama was subsequently selected as a site to participate in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. In June of this year, Governor Bentley asked me to serve as the Chairman of this Task Force, which is comprised of 25 members from the public and private sector as well as all three branches of government. A special effort was made to include members from both political parties as well as inmate advocacy organizations and law enforcement.

22 states have previously participated in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. Recently, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi have used this process to achieve reforms that should reduce their prison populations by 8-10%.

For decades, Alabama has grappled with a growing criminal justice system seemingly tugged in two different directions.

To moderate the spiraling prison population growth and in response to crisis conditions, Alabama has utilized various alternatives such as work release, pre-trial diversion programs, supervised intensive restitution, community corrections programs, correctional incentive time (good time), parole, special release dockets, drug courts, and new prison construction.  While Alabama’s correctional history is replete with efforts to alleviate overcrowding, these efforts have always had to compete with laws and practices geared to punish offenders more severely, including the Habitual Felony Offender Act, sentence enhancements, good time restrictions, parole minimum time-served policies, and mandatory minimum sentences.  The result of this balancing act is a complex set of laws, policies, and processes, each instituted over the past 30 years, to deal with the unique problem of the day. (Alabama Sentencing Commission 2003 Report). 

The State began to recognize the severe challenges our system faced in 2000 when the Alabama Legislature created the Alabama Sentencing Commission to review Alabama’s existing sentencing structure, including all laws, policies, and practices.  The Legislature further directed the Commission to provide recommendations on improvements to the State’s criminal justice system on an annual basis.  The Commission is a 21-member body comprised of representatives from the three branches of state government and other major stakeholders in the state’s criminal justice system.

By the time the Commission was created, the entire criminal justice system was in need of comprehensive reform.  Many believed the problems were too numerous and severe to resolve—an overcrowded prison system that had existed for years; county jails backlogged with state prisoners; a system lacking truth-in-sentencing; confusing prison release policies; insufficient community based sentencing options; and a general fund that had no money to spare.  

The foundation for all recommendations and decisions made by the Commission has always been empirical evidence.  The Commission established cooperative data sharing procedures with the Administrative Office of the Courts, Alabama Department of Corrections, Board of Pardons and Paroles, the Alabama Criminal Justice Information Center and the Alabama Community Corrections Association.  These agreements allowed—for the first time in the state’s history—a comprehensive database to be created allowing for unprecedented insight into the state’s sentencing and correctional system.  Applied Research Services (ARS), founded by Drs. Tammy Meredith and John Speir, was hired to help develop the Commission’s ability to collect, analyze, and interpret the immense amount of information. 

Alabama recognized it could no longer afford to guess which policies would most effectively secure the safety of citizens but needed to join the ranks of states employing the use of empirically supported research to guide sentencing and criminal justice policy.  In addition to not measuring what policies may or may not better protect public safety, the state did not have the ability to forecast or predict the impact of changes in sentencing laws and practices on criminal justice populations.  ARS constructed, and the state still uses, one of the most accurate computerized correctional simulation models in the country.  This tool allows the Commission to measure the impact of proposed laws or practices before implementation providing an essential tool for the development of an intelligent and carefully planned criminal justice system. 

The major component of the Commission’s work has been the creation and recent modifications of the state’s Sentencing Standards (guidelines).  One of the initial findings after reviewing years of statewide sentencing information was that sentencing practices varied immensely across the state.  Even similarly situated offenders often received very different sentences (incarceration vs. community supervision and length of sentence).   The Standards were developed to eliminate unwarranted sentencing disparity while maintaining meaningful judicial discretion.  The initial Sentencing Standards that went into effect October 1, 2006 were voluntary.   After reviewing years of information, the Initial Voluntary Sentencing Standards were not followed to the extent that was hoped.  In the 2012 Regular Session, the Alabama Legislature directed the Commission to make the necessary modifications to the Initial Voluntary Sentencing Standards to transition to Presumptive sentencing for drug and select property offenses beginning October 1, 2013. This has not been without political debate within the law enforcement community. I have worked closely with our District Attorneys to make sure these guidelines do not hinder the prosecution or settlement of cases. As I have said before, this reform effort will continue to be a work in progress and further changes may be necessary to the sentencing guidelines.

Alabama can greatly reduce its’ overpopulation that depends solely on incarceration by using alternative sentencing programs. The problem is that Community Corrections programs that are currently in the state are not created by the state nor staffed by state employees.  These programs can only be created by a county or non-profit agency pursuant to state law; however, they provide an essential service helping to alleviate state prison overcrowding by supervising felony offenders upon direction from courts and supervision of offenders leaving prison.  Recognizing the state needed more community corrections programs and to make existing ones more efficient and effective, the Sentencing Commission recommended, and the Legislature later approved, the creation of a Division of Community Corrections within the ADOC with a full-time director and staff and an appropriation from the general fund budget earmarked for program implementation and operating costs.  Out of the 67 counties in Alabama, there are 48 counties with a community corrections program and ADOC continues to coordinate with other counties to establish new programs. 

Community Corrections Programs (CCP) offers a variety of services as alternative punishment options for judges to utilize to assist the state, counties and municipalities with crowding within incarceration facilities.  The purpose of community corrections is to provide services that expand the options available for sentencing criminal defendants.  By diverting low to medium-risk offenders from prison, scarce prison space is available for the incarceration of violent and repeat offenders.  Many offenders exhibit characteristics that are static and cannot be changed.  However, dynamic factors such as poor work habits, criminal associates and lack of educational training can be impacted through targeted interventions.  Offenders who display a range of actions that are correlated with criminal conduct respond well to such interventions.

To improve community corrections outcomes, the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) adopted evidenced based practices.  In 2012, ADOC implemented a validated risk and needs assessment instrument known as the Alabama Risk Assessment System (ARAS) for community corrections offenders. The goal of the system is to provide assessment tools that are predictive of recidivism for offenders, which allow county programs to allocate critical resources to those offenders who have an increased risk of recidivating. 

Additionally, ADOC developed and implemented a statewide Community Corrections Offender Contact/Supervision Matrix based on the principles in the Alabama Risk Assessment System. This matrix is an invaluable tool to assist programs in the allocating of critical resources to offenders based on risk levels identified in the risk and needs assessment.

Alabama’s Community Corrections Programs have experienced significant growth during the last 10 years.  During the period from FY 2003-2013, the community corrections population grew by 548% - 503 offenders in FY 2003 to 3,261 offenders in FY 2013.  In fiscal year 2003, there were 21 county community corrections program in Alabama; by FY 2013 there were 34 community corrections programs serving 45 counties. The growth during this period was 114% or an increase in 24 counties served.  Currently, there are approximately 3,700 “otherwise prison bound” offenders being supervised in the community. The ADOC pays CCPs a monthly per diem for approximately 2,300 felony offenders.

One important factor to grow Community Corrections is to increase the number of counties who decide to organize a CCP and to provide a financial incentive for CCPs to reach and surpass established goals to divert offenders who would otherwise be sitting in a prison bed.

Reading past reports of the Alabama Sentencing Commission reveals not only the debate regarding Corrections in my state but also future paths that may be taken if we have the political will.  The 2003 report recommends that the state “provide a system of intermediate community-based punishment options allowing overnight incarceration as both a sentencing option and a re-entry option.” It continued, “On the front end, these facilities allow courts an additional sentencing option, placing non-violent offenders in the community to live in a penal facility and to work and pay for their incarceration, restitution, and family support.  In addition, this type of facility can be used on the back end of a sentence of incarceration to require a gradual re-entry into the community for all incarcerated offenders who will be eventually released from prison back into the community.”

Any discussion about Alabama’s criminal justice system must include the Board of Pardons and Paroles.  Nearly 53,000 felony offenders are on probation or parole supervision on any given day in Alabama.  Fiscal constraints limiting the number of supervising officers have resulted in caseloads of nearly 200 offenders per officer, well above the nationally recognized standard of the desired caseload of 75 offenders or less per officer.  Probation and parole officers have other duties other than offender supervision including preparation of presentence investigations, youthful offender investigations, sentencing standards worksheet preparation, victim location and notification, and collection of court ordered money. 

The State cannot continue to crowd the prisons and we cannot expect to improve public safety by having unmanageable caseloads for probation and parole officers tasked with supervising nearly 53,000 felony offenders.  There will likely have to be large shifts in the community supervision models employed in the state—both from staffing perspectives and how to best protect public safety by matching offenders with appropriate services that will decrease the likelihood of further criminal activity.  The implementation and use of validated empirically based risk and needs assessment tools needs to be continued and expanded to all segments of the criminal justice system to make best use of the resources allocated. 

Any future reform efforts in the Alabama Corrections System must be data driven and not politically driven. We must begin to use the benefits of modern science and academic studies to help resolve the challenges that face all areas of the Criminal Justice System. In Alabama, recent improvements have been made and must continue.  These reforms include improving the effectiveness of information sharing among all components of the criminal justice system; utilization of a risk-needs responsitivity model as the way to channel scarce program resources to those offenders who will benefit the most; and enhanced utilization of community corrections programs—diverting offenders from the costly confines of a correctional facility and offering an opportunity for rehabilitation in their community with family and positive role models who support rehabilitation.  In addition to these reforms, we must also understand the importance of correctional education and properly funding a proven method of lowering our recidivism rates.

Corrections Systems in both Alabama and those under federal jurisdiction have a similar statistic in common. According to data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS) more than half of all prison and jail offenders have mental health (MH) problems. Specifically, 56.2% of state prison offenders have a mental health problem; 64.2% of local jail offenders have a mental health problem; (It should be noted that this is on a broader definition of mental health as opposed to those with serious and persistent mental illness SPMI) 74.1% of offenders with mental problems have a history of substance abuse (SA) or dependency; and 55.6% of offenders without mental problems have a history of substance abuse or dependency.  It is clear that successful treatment of behavioral health disorders among offenders is a key component of addressing crime and recidivism rates.  The method for addressing these problems has been successful in many parts of Alabama but have not been uniformly applied throughout the state leading to disjointed services. Providing a uniform, statewide system of Drug, Mental Health and Veterans Courts continues to be a goal for others and myself in state government. It has a proven track record of greatly reducing the recidivism rate in the criminal justice system. While these alternative court procedures provide a valuable tool in reducing recidivism, they are not currently in place for every Alabama circuit. With a previously noted high level of drug addiction and mental health inmates, these courts offer a real opportunity for reducing future incarceration rates for non-violent offenders. We need to be proactive in expanding these programs throughout our state.

There are several other reform measures that continue to be studied in Alabama, but they need more support from the legislature. To better ensure access to and continuity of care for offenders, Alabama is creating the Alabama Secure Sharing Utility for Recidivism Elimination (ASSURE) information sharing portal.  This innovative approach will allow authorized personnel from the Department of Corrections, Board of Pardons and Paroles, Department of Mental Health, community-based mental health and substance abuse providers to share treatment and supervision information for offenders. 

The primary objectives of the initiative are to help offenders stay out of prison by allowing probation officers to monitor participation in court-ordered treatment programs.  Secondly, it is important to ensure that offenders who go to prison receive the care they need by allowing intake and health care professionals to access treatment records from Mental Health hospitals and community mental health centers.  Lastly, the objective is also to enable those who are leaving prison to receive speedy follow-up care within the community to improve the odds of their success in our communities.  These objectives impact the safety of our neighborhoods and begin to favorably impact our recidivism rates.

The importance of funding these crucial information-sharing efforts, such as ASSURE, cannot be underestimated.  These initiatives help lower costs by increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of the intake process for mental health and substance abuse service providers, mental health professionals, supervising probation and parole officers and our correctional professionals.  Information sharing portals also enhance the continuity of care and reduce reliance on emergency room services by referring people leaving correctional facilities to community-based mental health and substance use treatment services.  More funding from both the state and federal government can help reduce overall constraints on state correctional systems by investing in these proven successful programs.

Our District Attorneys have also put forth many initiatives that have consistently been employed to reduce prison population. Among others, they have established adult drug courts and veteran’s courts to deal with those drug offenders who would otherwise go to prison and to deal with the special needs of our veterans who were also most likely headed to prison. Their pretrial diversion programs have had a substantial impact on our system as well. Many thousands of non-violent, low-level offenders are kept out of the penitentiary system through all of these programs. Most cases are diverted after arrest and before grand jury thereby saving valuable court resources for those violent offenders who need to go to prison.

Evidence based programs must become the cornerstone of our criminal justice practices.  The utilization of a needs responsivity model is the way to channel scarce program resources to those offenders who will benefit the most.  The Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS) is being used in our community corrections programs throughout the state and recently within our correctional system.  This evidence-based instrument is a strength-based risk and needs assessment designed to predict recidivism at different points in the criminal justice system.  This instrument has been validated and normed for a corrections population.  The use of the standardized assessment tool promotes the objective assessment of the risk of recidivism for offenders; its use improves communication with offenders and helps tailor treatment plans for the individual’s identified need(s). 

The ORAS interview guide is comprised of questions on a variety of criminogenic risk topics including criminal history, substance use, criminal peers, criminal thinking, employment and education, mental health, emotional control, personality, and residential stability. 

The self-report instrument gathers information on criminal thinking, perspective taking, aggression, coping, empathy, emotionality, problem solving, and involvement in pro-social activities, financial stress, and employment.  The ORAS tools will be used to target services for individuals assessed as moderate to high risk for recidivism.   Use of the instruments will define the appropriate type, dosage and intensity of treatment and services both pre- and post-release for each program participant.   The individualized reentry plan can incorporate the offender’s risk and need level and identify which are the greatest criminogenic needs.  These needs will be addressed in a targeted and systematic manner using interventions grounded in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. 

In 2007, the Alabama Sentencing Commission selected the ORAS Pre-Trial Assessment Tool for use with alternative sentencing programs.  Community Corrections agencies are also utilizing the Community Supervision Tool, and ADOC will utilize the Prison Intake Tool at its receiving facilities and the Re-entry Tool through its Pre-release and Reentry Program within the facilities. 

Key professionals, in state, county and local governments can use these models to develop individualized reentry plans to assist them as they transition from incarceration to the community.  This uniform approach can provide consistent and sustained case planning and management out into the community.

While politically unpopular during tough budget times we must not forget the value of Correctional Education in Prison Reform.  Being “Smart on Crime” suggests we work to rehabilitate those in custody. One important tool we have in our rehabilitation toolbox is correctional education that offers basic education, workforce training, and life skills necessary for success in our society.  If we do not face the reality of this need, the chances that an incarcerated offender will be successful on the outside are bleak indeed.  While some violent inmates will not and should not ever return to society where they are a threat to public safety, many inmates eventually do return to the community. Meanwhile, public opinion is generally averse to spending money on correctional education efforts and instead advocates ‘locking them up and throwing away the key.’  In reality, locking them up and throwing away the key will not work—and has not worked. 

According to statistics provided by the American Correctional Association and U.S. Bureau of Justice, some 95% of all offenders incarcerated today will ultimately be released back into society. This public opinion results in significant pressure, which leads decision-makers away from what is known about national practices regarding corrections.  Consequently, not only is ‘locking them up and throwing away the key’ ineffective in making long-term change in offender behavior, it will not make Alabama citizens safer, and it is an economically unsustainable model.  What do we know about the success of correctional education efforts?

It is well known and documented that education and skills training significantly reduce recidivism.  A recent RAND research effort titled “How Effective is Correctional Education and Where Do We Go From Here?” reported that

Correctional education improves offenders' chances of not returning to prison and their chances of post-release employment. It also found that offenders who participate in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of recidivating than those who did not. This translates to a reduction in the risk of recidivating of 13 percentage points. Again, the goal of such basic education programs is to reduce recidivism and saving money for corrections system in the long run.

In conclusion, while Alabama has a serious challenge ahead in resolving our prison-overcrowding problem I believe that some of the alternative programs I mentioned today provide as a road map to a healthier system in the long run. Whether it is on the state or federal level, fixing corrections programs is not an easy or short-term task. There are some tough political choices that have to be made but fiscal constraints on our budgets and the obligation to maintain a constitutional system of corrections require that we start addressing this problem sooner rather than later. 

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