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Bill Restores Transparency

Alabamians who care about transparency in government should be pleased to see – and to support – legislation that will repair the damage done to the public good by three deeply disturbing decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court. A prefiled bill by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, responsibly addresses the issues in those open government decisions.

In 2012, the court upheld the fundamentally dishonest practice of so-called "serial meetings," smaller gatherings of government bodies in which there is never a quorum present, but in which important matters that will come before the full body are discussed. It's a sneaky way around the Open Meetings Act, but the court held that is not unlawful.

(That decision was particularly painful here because the case involved the Montgomery County Board of Education, which employed serial meetings during a superintendent search.)

Ward's bill prohibits serial meetings. That alone is enough to warrant supporting it, but the bill goes further in strengthening the right of Alabamians to know what their government is doing.

In a 2013 decision, the court held that citizens have no standing to bring suits under the Open Meetings Act if the civil penalty is paid to the state. Money is not the point of such suits, of course; the idea is to hold public officials accountable for the transparency required under the law.

Ward's bill states that a citizen may bring suit under the act and, if he or she prevails and there is a civil penalty levied, the citizen gets it. The penalty may be as little as $1 under the law, but again, the money is not the point. Stopping the unlawful secrecy is.

In 2013, the court also held that there is no requirement that the proceedings of the Legislature be open to the public. The very notion of the doors of the Legislature being closed in the collective face of Alabama is appalling and, even though it surely would be most unlikely to happen, the fact that the court gave legal cover to the idea is troubling.

Ward's bill clarifies that the Legislature is governed by the state constitution in this regard and its doors are to be open to the public.

The Open Meetings Act offers valuable protections for the people, protections that were lamentably weakened by these state Supreme Court decisions. Ward's bill fortifies the law anew and should be passed when the Legislature convenes next month.

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Maplesville Receives Grant

Maplesville High School received a grant totaling $5,000 for new playground equipment as part of a CAWACO grant on Tuesday, and served as a means of helping the school reach its $35,000 goal to purchase the new equipment.

The new equipment includes slides, chutes and ladders, as well as mulch put down to absorb the impact in case a child fell, among other items.

Fundraising for the purchase of the equipment, which was installed in December 2014, was led by sixth-grade teacher Brittany Yeargan.

“We had donations range from a student giving 75 cents, to $10,000,” Yeargan told the crowd at the presentation—which included Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), Chilton County Schools Superintendent Tommy Glasscock and members of the Maplesville Town Council. “The kids love it.”

Yeargan said she felt the need to lead the charge on improving the equipment after seeing a number of safety concerns for students using the playground—including witnessing both a student break a finger on the equipment, as well as her own son suffering an injury while on the playground.

“We knew as a school and a community that our playground needed to be updated,” she said. “Basically, we knew that it was very outdated and a lot of injuries had taken place. I had my 5-year-old (son) break his arm, so that was an initiative for me to really try to do something that would provide a little more safety for the playground.”

Yeargan said the playground itself wasn’t the issue; instead, the equipment was simply in need of renovation.

“It wasn’t that the playground we had was out of shape, it just needed a little upgrade and something that could accommodate more children at one time,” she said.

Yeargan began to search for equipment, and said she found and offer from PlayCore, a company specializing in playground equipment.

“If we were to buy that (equipment) right now, that would be $50,000,” she said. “I ran across a special where they were offering (a deal) where if you could raise $25,000, they would match it 100 percent with the other $25,000. So, we were able to focus on the $25,000 mark, because we knew if we got to the $25,000 they would match us to be able to get the equipment.”

While the school was able to reach the $25,000 needed for the match, fundraising efforts continued in attempt to help pay to bring the equipment to the school as well as install it.

“We had to continue fundraising to get the remainder for the shipping and installation and safety perforation,” she said.”We also used a little money left over to replace every swing on all swing sets. We bought a total of 16 commercial grade swings.”

The cause needed around $10,000 more to complete the delivery and installation, and Yeargan said the $5,000 grant from CAWACO helped the fundraising effort meet its total.

“When I contacted CAWACO, we were still in need of about $4,900,” she said. “The grant amounts that you could request were $5,000 so that’s what I decided to request. The $5,000 was used to get us ‘over the hump.’ When I contacted CAWACO, we were still in need of about $4,900. The grant amounts that you could request were $5,000 so that’s what I decided to request.”

Yeargan said the real payoff is in the excitement shown by students who use the equipment.

“It will give you chill bumps to see them running and screaming,” she said. “It’s nonstop activity. Just to see them smile is worth it.”

 - See more at:

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Regular Session Starting Soon

The legislature and the governor are preparing for the first regular session of the quadrennium. The session will begin March 3.

Legislators need to arrive in Montgomery with their lunch pails and sleeves rolled up ready to go to work, because the proverbial chickens have come home to roost. They are facing a gargantuan budget crisis in the state’s General Fund. They cannot spend this four years cussing Obamacare and passing unconstitutional and meaningless bills dealing with federal issues like immigration and abortion.

They cannot kick the can down the road any longer. If they do not fix the cash strapped General Fund, they are going to start getting calls from angry constituents telling them that Aunt Susie is being kicked out of the nursing home and she’s coming to live with them, and their daughter went down to the courthouse to get her driver’s license on her 16th birthday and nobody was there to give her the test, and their wife was in a car accident on I-65 and she sat in the care for two hours until a state trooper arrived, and, by the way, there are a couple of state convicts hanging out in their front yard.

The legislature has a big hole to dig out of for next year. Those legislators who were proud of being placed on the budget committees during the organizational session may want to rethink their committee assignments. Their appointments may appear more like a prison sentence.

For the next fiscal year, the budget hole in just the General Fund is over $261 million. However, the projected shortfall over the next few years will be more like $700 million. The governor has to take the lead in steering the state out of this crisis. The governor proposes and the legislature disposes.

Gov. Bentley has said that the time has come when the state is not able to postpone dealing with the issue any longer. “Taxes would be the last thing I would look to as far as raising a new tax. But I cannot see getting through this without having to raise new revenue.” Bentley continued, “We’re broke and we don’t have enough money to cover what we owe.” In his defense, he did not cause the problem. He inherited it. His predecessor left the cupboard bare. Bob Riley spent any and all cash in the Rainy Day Funds and the federal stimulus money has run out.

It is no secret that the major culprits causing the dilemma in the General Fund are Medicaid and prisons. The governor is adamant that he does not want to expand Medicaid under the Federal Medicaid Expansion Act. He has consistently stood on the position that we cannot expand because we cannot afford what we have now.

The prison problem is pressing. Alabama’s prison system is at almost double its capacity. This overcrowding is creating safety problems and is teetering on an emergency situation. There may be some long-term solutions. Some of the problems could be alleviated by alternative sentencing measures. There has got to be other ways to punish crimes besides incarceration. Other states have had success taking this approach. State Sen. Cam Ward has taken the lead in prison reform. He will be at the forefront of any reform measures.

In the meantime, any alternative sentencing guidelines will take years to implement. This crisis must be addressed immediately. The state will have to allot more funds for adequate jails or risk having a federal takeover of the State Prison System. There is a precedent for this in the State. The bill for the federal takeover was extremely expensive.

We will shortly see what the governor has to offer as solutions to the state’s financial woes. When the governor makes his proposals on March 3, the presiding officer in the House will be Speaker Mike Hubbard (R-Auburn). He has been indicted on 23 felony ethics charges accusing him of using his office for personal gain. His trial is set to begin in October.

Campaign records show he has spent close to $300,000 for legal fees using his campaign funds, which has been ruled allowable by an Attorney General’s opinion issued in 2000. The advisory opinion says that criminal defense costs can be paid out of campaign finance funds if the accusations are related to how the person performed in office.

See you next week.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column on Alabama politics appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at

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Challenges Present Opportunities for Reform

It is no secret that as the Alabama Legislature reconvenes in March we have some major challenges.  Our General Fund Budget of about $1.6 Billion will have a shortfall of nearly $250 million in the upcoming fiscal year. This is a big problem considering that Medicaid and prisons consume about 65% of the budget and cannot be cut any further than they already have been. I believe this challenge presents us with some real opportunities for reform.

For better or worse, government seldom tackles necessary reform until they are faced with a crisis. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction to automatically raise revenue, we should first look at where long-term reform can save our state money. I have long talked about the need for reform in our broken corrections system in Alabama. The model we have right now is not working and many other states have already provided us with the blueprint that can help Alabama move forward in a fiscally conservative manner on this issue. While it might take a lot of political courage to take on this reform, it is long overdue and will save the taxpayers a lot of money, as well as enhance public safety.

Medicaid is another area that the state needs to take a hard look at reforming.  It is the fastest growing part of our General Fund Budget.  The answer some say is to just ‘take the additional federal money being offered under Obamacare.’ This is a terribly, over-simplistic approach to solving our problem. By taking the federal dollars that have been proposed, the State of Alabama will still have to provide 10% of the overall Medicaid dollars given to us. That sounds like a good deal; however, the problem is that 10% of the federal dollars could increase the spending in our General Fund by up to $120 million.  If we are short $250 million now, why would we increase expenditures by that much money and where would it come from? 

Alabama state government does have some serious challenges ahead, but I truly believe these challenges will force us to finally tackle some of the long overdue reforms that are needed. 

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Five States Where Republicans Are Taking on Prison Reform

A growing group of conservatives are stepping back from their traditional "tough on crime" stance and taking a lead on reforming the criminal justice system. There's even talk that congressional Republicans and Democrats could come together on the issue: Earlier this week, members of the Senate Judiciary Committee introduced a bipartisan prison reform bill. (Though it seems to have considerable flaws.)

At the state level, Republicans have already been taking on the issue. Here are five states where Republican governors and their fellow GOP lawmakers are taking on broken prison systems and the harsh laws that have fueled the incarceration boom:

Nebraska: Members of Nebraska's legislature have introduced several bills that address the state's overcrowded prisons. These include two bills introduced Wednesday, which would do away with mandatory minimum sentences for a slew of crimes (including distributing cocaine and heroin) and limit Nebraska's "three-strikes" law to violent crimes. While the Cornhusker State's legislature is nonpartisan, a majority of bills' cosponsors are affiliated with the Republican Party, including Sen. Jim Smith, the head of the state branch of the American Legislative Exchange Council.  Republican Governor Pete Ricketts reportedly supports the push for prison reform, as does the Omaha-based Platte Institute, a conservative think tank that recently released recommendations for decreasing incarceration that have drawn support from the Nebraska ACLU.

Utah: Republican state Representative Eric Hutchings is sponsoring legislation that aims to reduce Utah's prison population and decrease recidivism. The bill, which has yet to be publicly released, would decrease the charge for drug possession from a felony to a misdemeanor. Governor Gary Herbert, also a Republican, has put aside $10.5 million for recidivism reform.

Illinois: Governor Bruce Rauner's agenda includes a plan to keep nonviolent offenders out of prison by instead sending them to community programs. Earlier this week, he created a commission of lawmakers, cops, and activists to recommend reforms to the state's criminal justice system. More details about his plan will come out when he releases his 2016 budget recommendations next week.

Alabama: The legislature-appointed Alabama Prison Reform Task Force is gearing up to propose a new bill for the next legislative session, which begins in March. Led by Republican state Senator Cam Ward, an outspoken Second Amendment defender, the task force is seeking ways to cut down the state's prison population, which is more twice its intended size. One of Ward's ideas? Making re-entry easier by throwing out draconian laws for ex-felons, like those preventing them from getting driver's licenses.

Georgia: A similar task force, the Georgia Council on Criminal Justice Reform, has been recommending reforms to lawmakers. Formed in 2011 by Republican Governor Nathan Deal, the group has pushed the state to stop imprisoningjuveniles and reform sentencing for nonviolent offenders, which slashed $20 million off the cost to house inmates in Georgia. The council's current agendaincludes initiatives to improve reentry for ex-felons

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Prison Reform Options Released

More parole officers, a new classification of low-level felonies and more supervision of inmates after release are three of more than a dozen recommendations issued today by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force.

The group met in Columbiana and released a list of proposals aimed at reducing prison crowding while making better use of public safety dollars.

The proposals would reduce the state's prison population by about 4,500 inmates over the next six years, according to projections by researchers with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is helping the task force.

The prison population would drop from about 26,000, 195 percent of what the prisons are designed to hold, to about 21,500, 162 percent of capacity, CSG's projection showed.

It would cost the state about $25 million a year to implement the proposals, a total of $151.5 million through fiscal year 2021.

CSG's research showed that the proposals, intended to reduce recidivism and preserve prison space for the most dangerous, would be much cheaper than adding prison beds to achieve the same 162 percent of capacity.

CSG projected that would cost $407.5 million over six years, including additional operational costs.

The task force was appointed as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Alabama, an effort that involves all three branches of state government.

State leaders launched the initiative last year in response to mounting problems in the prison system and with conditions that some believe put the state at risk of intervention by the federal government.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the task force, said he expected to roll the proposals into a single bill for the legislative session that begins March 3.

Besides the task force proposals, Ward said Alabama must invest some money into construction to add more prison capacity.

There are about 30 people on the task force, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims' advocates and others.

Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell, a task force member, said he was glad to hear the acknowledgment that more prison beds are needed.

He said that has to be a part of any viable long-term plan.

The recommendations released today fell into three categories: reducing recidivism, prioritizing prison space for violent offenders and holding offenders accountable in prison and after release.

Under the reducing recidivism category, the task force recommended hiring 101 additional probation and parole officers and 22 specialists.

Alabama's probation and parole officers carry average caseloads of about 200. Smaller caseloads would let them focus attention on those more likely to re-offend, the recommendations say.

The plan calls for increased funding for substance abuse and cognitive behavioral programs for felons on probation and parole to help keep those offenders from returning to incarceration. It calls for evaluations of those programs and the outcomes to make sure the dollars are well spent.

CSG research showed that inmates who complete their sentences and leave prison with no supervision are more likely to re-offend and return than those released on parole.

To address that, the recommendations call for mandated periods of supervised release. For example, an inmate with a five-year sentence would be on parole for the final three months of that sentence.

One proposal would create a new class of felony for the least serious, nonviolent offenses. They would be called Class D felonies and would include simple drug possession, forgery and fraudulent use of a credit card, low-level thefts and the least serious burglaries.

Part of the intent would be to divert more of those offenders from prison to save space for more serious offenders.

Ward said that might be the toughest part of the bill to pass. But he said it was important.

"It moves the needle more than any other part of the proposal," he said.

CSG researcher Andy Barbee said 72 percent of Alabama inmates are serving time for a violent offense. Burglaries are classified as violent.

Under the Class D felony proposal, burglaries of uninhabited, non-domicile buildings where no victims are encountered would be considered nonviolent.

Thefts of property valued between $500 and $1,499 would also be a Class D felony.

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 26, when it is expected to take a formal vote on policy recommendations.

It plans to release a final report with a summary of findings the first week of March.

The CSG's Barbee said that the recommendations aren't intended as a final solution to prison crowding and other problems. He said there is no such remedy and that all states have to constantly monitor and change policies.

"That's the nature of criminal justice," Barbee said.

Ward said he did not expect unanimity on a final plan, but was hopeful that task force members would support 80 percent of it.

He said solutions to the state's prison problems won't come quickly.

"This is a long-term process," Ward said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

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Prison Reform: Cautious optimism from lawmakers

Gov. Robert Bentley and legislative leaders said last week that efforts to address the massive overcrowding in state prisons will be at the top of their agenda when the regular session begins in March.

But even with leadership backing — and a plan to present the proposals to the Republican-dominated Legislature as a states’ rights matter — a number of lawmakers said it could test the salesmanship of supporters.

“One of the problems we’ve got is the easy stuff has been voted on and the hard stuff hasn’t,” said Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, a former chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

No one interviewed last week had doubts that the overcrowding in state prisons has reached a crisis point. The in-house inmate population reached 186 percent of built capacity in September, the last month where statistics were publicly available, according to the state Department of Corrections. That month, there were more than 12 inmates for every correctional staff member.

The Department of Corrections is also facing a federal investigation over conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, where reports have revealed sexual violence and intimidation against inmates. Last November, the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative called for a full investigation of the state’s prison system amid further reports of violence — including homicides — abuse, criminal misconduct and corruption.

A Legislative Prison Reform Task Force, headed by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has worked with the Council of State Governments over the last several months on developing proposals aimed at addressing the situation in the prisons.

Studies conducted by the CSG have shown that the number of parole denials in the state has risen in recent years, and Ward said last week the initial legislative proposals — scheduled to be released in the middle of February — would likely tackle parole and sentencing. Representatives from CSG briefed a number of lawmakers on the proposals last week.

‘We have to start this year’

Ward, who also chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, has previously said he expects a process going over several years, and he repeated that prediction in a brief interview last week.

“We have to start this year,” he said, saying that waiting an additional year would increase the chances of the prison system falling into federal receivership.

The system went into receivership in the mid-1970s, due to overcrowding. Should that happen, a federal court could pursue any number of remedies, up to and including ordering the release of prisoners from the system. Ward argues that if Alabama considers itself a “10th Amendment state” — referring to the amendment that says the federal government’s powers are delegated to it by the states or the people — it needs to tackle the problem on its own.

Bentley, House Speaker Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, all said in separate interviews last week that they will prioritize the prison proposals. For their part, lawmakers last week were taking a wait-and-see approach, acknowledging the problem but saying they wanted to see the solutions proposed.

“We’ve got to be smarter in our sentencing,” said Rep. Mike Ball, R-Madison, a retired Alabama State Trooper. “At the same time, we have to make sure people who need to be in prison are in prison.”

Black said he believed the mantra of “soft on crime” still resonates with politicians, and that the threat of a federal takeover might not be enough.

“That may not sway people until it happens, and even then, it might not sway people,” he said.

Ward disagreed, noting that Republican states such as North Carolina had tackled the issue without any major losses at the polls.

“Republicans all over the country have taken this on, and no one’s been defeated yet because of it,” he said.

Still, there could be other issues. Ward said “you’re going to have to have money” for the proposals being considered, though he declined to name a figure.

Corrections costs continue to grow

Ward also said he did not know where that money might come from. The Department of Corrections gets state money through the General Fund budget, which faces a deficit of between $250 million and $283 million in fiscal year 2016, which begins on Oct. 1. Corrections currently consumes $394 million of the $1.83 billion budget, and costs continue to grow.

“It may be a situation where we can try to control the rate of increase, like we did with Medicaid,” said Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, chairman of the House Ways and Means General Fund Committee.

The current plan is to introduce the proposed measures in a single bill, as a way to ensure items that may be difficult get a vote. Rep. Patricia Todd, D-Birmingham, said she was uncertain of that approach.

“You’ve got a bill with a lot of parts, and some person unsure of one piece can decide not to vote for any of it,” she said.

Still, House Democrats such as Todd and Chris England of Tuscaloosa seemed broadly supportive of the proposals. England said parole and sentencing would be the “two most important components” of any reform package.

“For the first time in a long time, I think the public understands there’s a legitimate need to deal with prison overpopulation,” he said. “I think we’ll be able to pass it. The devil’s in the details, but I think we’ll be able to pass it.”

But almost everyone in the House is trying to take a clear-eyed approach. Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, the newly-installed chair of the House Judiciary Committee, will tackle the bills first in the lower House. Jones said the matter will “have to be looked at from a number of different angles.

“It’s a complex issue,” he said. “That’s the biggest difficulty with it. It’s not a one-dimensional issue.”

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Now is the time for comprehensive reform of Alabama's criminal justice system

As Alabamians, it is our responsibility to confront and address problems that plague our state and limit our ability to grow and progress economically and otherwise. To do that, we must look at those problems squarely and be honest with ourselves about where our current and past practices have left us.

The state of overcrowding in our prisons and jails, and the operation of the criminal justice system that feeds them, has finally gripped the attention of people across our state. However, while public discourse is good, the ongoing discussions have magnified the flaws in our current system and revealed a dire need for reform. Raw data and unbiased research indisputably shows that the structure of our criminal justice system has, in fact, severely compromised our fight on crime at a fundamental level.


  • About the writer
    Republican Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate.

We have learned, with expert assistance and analysis by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, that our system lets more than a third of all individuals finish their prison sentences and reenter society without any kind of supervision. That includes large numbers of short-term inmates who are sentenced for drug or property crimes and more likely to reoffend.

Those serving long-term sentences are serving longer and longer under the guise of a harsh punishment, due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. However, the truth is that we are merely prolonging their inevitable return to society while failing altogether to take steps to decrease their threat to society upon reentry. In fact, statistics show that sentences without supervised release very often result in an increased risk of reoffending.

Our correctional system is unsustainably crowded, and currently holds twice as many people as it is built to house.

Between 2003 and 2013, the population in state-run prisons alone climbed 9 percent. When alternative placements like community corrections are taken into account, the population increase is even higher at 19 percent over that same time span. Corrections spending also increased 49 percent during this ten-year period, from $309 million to $460 million. The numbers in the last decade show how unaffordable that growth has become.

That growing cost may seem overwhelming, but if we fail to tackle the challenge the cost will grow dramatically. Further, the price of 12,000 new prison beds -- enough to bring our system into line with current demands on beds -- would cost $840 million to construct, and would cost $186 million annually just to operate.

Opting to buy our state out of overcrowding, however, would only be a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue, and failure to address the root of the problem will only increase future costs.

All of these factors combine to make restructuring essential in our system, to place equal emphasis on reentry and supervision that we place on prison. There are many upsides to tackling this situation now. When Alabama balances the need for sentences to include stays of confinement as well as mandatory supervision, we can manage the demand for beds and better plan the use of our own resources. Additionally, we can fill in gaps in the supervised treatment network and begin to reverse the declining parole release rate.

These facts present a blunt reality and, now that it has caught our attention, I cannot overstate the urgency of achieving comprehensive reform for Alabama's criminal justice system.

We must move forward with the ultimate objective to develop concrete, effective change that will preserve public safety and support law enforcement operations in our state. This important effort demands two things: collaboration and thoughtful attention. There is no place for political rhetoric in these discussions and in this work. It is imperative that we remain committed to finding a resolution that will balance efficient use of our current resources with change that will necessarily allow for effective operations, all the while preserving the safety of Alabama citizens now and in the future. 

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Alabama's Prison System Has Failed

  I have come to believe that it is not just prisoners that aren't being paroled that are causing the prisons to be overcrowded. It is also the errors the Judges, Prosecutors, and Disctrict Attorneys make.  A lot of inmates are imprisoned unlawfully.  Some judges abuse their power.  The DA and Prosecutors are willing to convict men and women to receive a promotion.  Is it a coincidence that they were both promoted after the convictions that were given to my husband and his co-defenders?

 Myself and my husband have spent thousands of dollars fighting Alabama's system.  A federal wiretap was used by the state 6 months later to search our home, which by law is considered "stale facts".  Those wiretaps were sealed by a federal judge and should not have been used to prosecute in a state court. These are the types of errors that exist and take our loved ones away from us. Everyone has a job to do but those jobs consist of proper procedures and abiding by the laws set forth.  

  My husband is sitting in prison today with a 20 split 5 sentence for prescribed cough medicine from his physician and a trafficking charge in which there was no evidence nor apprehension of him conducting such charge.  He is a first time, nonviolent offender, with no prior felonies.  Once incarcerated he was classified based on a co-defendants PSI report. How is that legal?  No one will listen and make the necessary changes.  We have filed appeal after appeal but the sentencing judge will not grant anything.  

  We will keep fighting until we get to the Federal Courts where they abide by the United States Constitution.  It does not all fall on the law makers.  Until the Judges, DA, and Prosecutors make the punishment fit the crime, the prisons will continue to be overcrowded.  I believe some felonies that are nonviolent should be reduced to a misdemeanor and a drug class, probation or house arrest should be implemented to avoid sending someone else to prison. There's alot of work to do but with the right politicians in place it can be done.

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Prison Reform Task Force to Present Proposals in February

MONTGOMERY — The head of a prison task force said sentencing changes, increased resources for parole and alternative sentences and construction projects to take the immediate pressure off overcrowded prisons will likely be among the items the group recommends to lawmakers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the lawmaker who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said he wants members to look at a "buffet" of proposals in January and hopefully have a bill ready in February. The group has been meeting since June to consider ways to overhaul the state prison system, so overcrowded that state politicians say they fear federal intervention.

Alabama prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates the facilities were originally designed to house. Alabama in 2013 also had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.

"Politicians created this problem. Through the years we've had politicians running on 'Lock them up and throw away the key.' They ran on that platform, but they didn't have a means to fund the high rate of incarceration," said task force member Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

Alabama deals with low-level property crimes more severely than other states, according to a study presented to the task force by the Council of State Governments.

Stealing something valued at $500 is felony theft in Alabama. Thirty-four states have higher monetary thresholds for theft to be considered a felony, according to the group. Alabama also considers burglary, no matter how small or the circumstances, to be a violent crime. Other states do not.

"We haven't changed those thresholds in years. We have the lowest thresholds in the South," Ward said.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said he believes the state needs additional changes to the Habitual Felony Offender Act, a decades-old law that for years handed down decades-long sentences.

"In my opinion, and I'm the chief justice, I think the judicial system is failing us," Moore said.

"We've got people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim, they've never confronted a person. That's unreasonable," Moore said in an interview.

Alabama lawmakers approved the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977 in an effort to crack down on career criminals. It mandates enhanced sentences for repeat offenders and mandatory sentence minimums. For example, a person convicted of a Class A felony — such as first-degree robbery, trafficking, rape, murder — is sentenced to life, either with or without the possibility of parole, if they have three prior convictions for lesser felonies. Lawmakers have softened the law through the years and since 2006 have allowed judges to set the lengthy mandatory sentences aside in some cases in favor of new sentence guidelines.

The chief justice said he believes there are still problems. Moore in September wrote a dissent in a case, in which a man caught trying to steal a nail gun from a Lowe's by stuffing it down his pants, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

The man, who had three previous felony convictions, was convicted of first-degree robbery, a Class A felony, after telling the store staff that confronted him that he had a gun while sticking his hand in his pocket. Moore said the man, who was not armed with a firearm and told police he was referencing the nail gun, should not have been convicted of armed robbery because he was not armed.

Ward said a major thrust for the task force will be to seek changes to probation and parole procedures.

Forty percent of prison admissions are for violation of probation and parole, according to the study presented to the task force. Officers with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles carry average caseloads of about 200 each.

"Somewhere in this process there is going to have to be some more money for supervised parole. Right now we just don't have the manpower to conduct the kind of supervision that these inmates need," Ward said.

Ward said the state needs to do something to increase immediate prison capacity to take the immediate pressure off of the system. That too, Ward said, will also take additional money from the state.

Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said if lawmakers just pass legislation without funding, "those reform efforts are never going to reach their potential."

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