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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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Why Alabama Cannot Wait on Prison Reform

By Sen. Cam Ward

Prisons are an issue that would never rank high on any list of priorities for the people of Alabama and understandably so.  With unemployment hovering near 7 percent and many schools in need of repair, people ask me why prison reform should be a major subject at this time.  The answer is simple – because our failure to maintain a good corrections system is going to push over a fiscal cliff that we may never recover from.

For years as our corrections system became more crowded the political leadership in Montgomery turned their eyes to issues more palatable to the voters during election time.  The general feeling for decades has been "let's wait and deal with that when we have more money."

As we waited our system grew to 192 percent capacity and despite this incarceration rate our state has the 8th highest violent crime rate in the country. Both of these statistics point to a failing system of corrections.

In addition to allowing for a broken system to continue down a path of inefficiency we have also created a fiscal nightmare of the likes our state has never seen before. While we spend $460 million a year on prisons, which represents about one-third of our General Fund Budget, it has not been a factor in what should be our top priority: public safety.

Some have argued that we should now build enough new prisons to reduce this overpopulation.  In order to "build our way" to a capacity of 137 percent we need to spend roughly $600 million MORE on corrections. That is over $1 billion in tax dollars out of a $1.8 billion budget just on prisons. That is fiscally irresponsible.

We have been waiting for years for some magic solution to appear in regards to our prison system. Now an unfortunate solution is staring us in the face: a federal takeover of our state corrections system. If a federal court was to place our system into receivership it would cost us hundreds of millions of dollars and result in the mass release of inmates. This would be a disaster for the state's public safety and would make our crime rate increase dramatically while the revenue to deal with it decreases.

Why can't Alabama wait to deal with prison reform? Because waiting is what got us into this problem to begin with and the longer we wait the harder it is going to be to solve.

State Senator Cam Ward is an attorney who specializes in economic development and has always been dedicated to whatever cause he committed himself to.

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Ward: No Easy Solution to Congress

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, joined Congressman Spencer Bachus in Washington on July 16 to brief Alabama congressional delegation staff members on possible ways to combat Alabama’s significant prison overcrowding.

The briefing followed earlier testimony that Ward delivered on prison reform to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations.  Ward recently was named the Chairman of the Joint Prison Oversight Committee established by the Alabama Legislature to explore potential reforms to the state’s prison system.

The delegation briefing focused on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between Alabama and the Council of State Governments whose goal is to thoroughly examine the state’s criminal justice system and use hard data as a basis for recommendations for potential policy changes.

In his testimony, Ward said Alabama’s prison system is at 192 percent capacity, making it the most crowded state prison system in the nation. Ward said it would take an estimated $600 million, or more than half of the state’s general fund budget, to build enough cells just to bring it down to 137 percent capacity.

In an interview before he traveled to Washington, Ward said Alabama is looking for “anything that can be done to help prevent a federal intervention” in the state’s prison system, which he said could result in a large-scale release of inmates.

“Whether it is on the state or federal level, fixing corrections programs is not an easy or short-term task,” Ward wrote in a release. “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.”

“The issues of prison costs and overcrowding facing the state of Alabama are challenging states across the country and the federal penitentiary system as well.  There is a need for sensible reform in both our state and federal systems,” Bachus wrote in a release. “State Senator Ward brought a very valuable perspective on how Alabama is approaching this problem to Congress and his views will help both the Judiciary Committee and the special Over-Criminalization Task Force that I serve on to address an urgent issue confronting our criminal justice system.”

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Ward Testifies Before Congress on Prison Reform

Overcrowding in state and federal prisons attracted bipartisan concern Tuesday at a House hearing where an Alabama state legislator said solutions will require political courage from both sides of the aisle.

“Rarely have I seen an issue that generates more bipartisan support than this particular issue does,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The federal prison system is 36 percent over capacity, prompting Congress to consider ways to slow the growth without jeopardizing public safety.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked several witnesses, including Ward, how states handle their own overcrowding issues.

Ward, chairman of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said a series of reforms — but no single solution — can reduce the number of people sentenced to incarceration and the number who commit new crimes after finishing their prison terms.

Ward suggested gathering better data on which offenders might qualify for alternatives to prison, increasing the number of community-based corrections programs and courts specializing in substance abuse and mental health issues, sentencing guidelines that give judges more flexibility, more education programs for prisoners, and eliminating laws that mandate long sentences for multiple minor offenses.

Alabama’s state prisons are operating at 192 percent of capacity, and it would take $600 million in new construction to drop that to 137 percent, Ward said. He called that option fiscally and morally unacceptable.

“Money is not going to be the solution,” Ward said.

Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee embraced many of the same ideas. Some already are sponsoring congressional legislation on the issue.

“I’m beginning to feel like more Republicans like Sen. Ward are thinking about this and it’s a wonderful thing,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sensenbrenner said the federal prison system has more than 216,000 inmates, and overcrowding is even worse at medium- and high-security facilities for men. In 2000, there were 4.1 inmates for every prison staffer, but that grew to 4.8 last year.

“The overcrowding leads to inmate misconduct and creates safety issues for both inmates and corrections officers,” Sensenbrenner said.

Ward said many of the proposed reforms are unpopular with conservatives who fear they’ll be viewed as soft on crime, but the changes would save money and improve public safety in the long run. Without changes, Ward added, Alabama risks a federal takeover of its prison system, which should be of special concern to conservatives.

“How can we dare defend our rights … and then turn over our corrections system to the federal courts?” Ward said after the hearing.

Ward, who also met with members of the Alabama congressional delegation about the overcrowding issue, was invited to testify by Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills.

“There is a need for sensible reform in both our state and federal systems,” Bachus said.

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OUR VIEW: Confront Prison Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser Editorial

A lot of statistics crop up in discussions of Alabama’s prison system, such as the oft-cited reality that the system has almost twice as many inmates as its facilities were built to hold. That’s troubling enough, but there are some new numbers that add further perspective that should be useful as the state proceeds under the Justice Reinvestment Initiative.

That initiative, part of the Office of Justice Programs in the U.S. Department of Justice, has helped several other states develop effective reforms in their prison systems. It’s a smart move for Alabama to draw on the expertise and experience JRI offers.

As the state task force delves into the issues, we hope it will bear in mind a critical fact and be open to two important questions that fact raises.

Here’s the fact: Alabama has a higher rate of incarceration than any country on the planet. If Alabama were a nation, its incarceration rate of 861 persons per 100,000 population would rank well ahead of the United States rate of 716 and miles ahead of the country in second place — Cuba, with 510 persons incarcerated per 100,000 residents.

Here are the questions: Why is our rate so high? And, what do we get for it?

Our state’s conservative politics can’t be the only answer to the first question. Other states that no one would confuse with bastions of liberalism have markedly lower incarceration rates — Nebraska at 443, North Dakota at 370, Utah at 458, New Hampshire at 368, Kansas at 631, for example.

Maybe it’s our general attitude toward prisons, a viewpoint geared more toward retribution than — despite the official name of the state’s prison department — corrections.

As for the second question, what we get is largely undesirable. We get a serious drain on an already strapped budget. We get many persons who come back into society poorly equipped to live successfully within its boundaries. Few people die in prison; most will return to society at some point.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who chairs the state task force, has called the prison problem the biggest challenge Alabama has ever faced. He may well be right.

Ward has been one of only a handful of responsible voices in the Legislature on this issue. We hope more of his colleagues will begin paying serious attention to the situation, moving away from the easy non-answers employed for so long and toward a candid confrontation of the problems that decades of neglect and unsound policies have only made worse.

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Prison Reform Task Force Begins Work

Mike Cason | By Mike Cason | 
on June 10, 2014 at 7:53 PM
MONTGOMERY, Alabama --- Alabama's Prison Reform Task Force met for the first time today, launching what could be ambitious changes for the state's criminal justice system.

The Legislature created the task force, and all three branches of state government signed on to the effort to fix a prison system filled to almost double its capacity, driven partly by concerns that federal courts will intervene if the state does not take action.

The 24-member task force today heard a three-hour presentation from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, the state's partner in a Justice Reinvestment project intended to decrease recidivism, increase public safety and spend taxpayer dollars more wisely on corrections programs.

State officials invited CSG to the state and the formal acceptance of that request was announced today. The reinvestment project is funded by grants from the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Department of Justice. Eighteen other states have used the program.

The goal in Alabama is to propose a package of bills in time for the next session of the Legislature in March 2015.

Andy Barbee, research manager for the Justice Center, told the task force that CSG has no preconceived notions about how to resolve Alabama's prison overcrowding.

"From our perspective, this is a blank slate," he said.

Barbee said the CSG would analyze vast reams of data and rely on judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victim advocates, parole officials and other stakeholders to help come up with a plan.

A tentative timeline calls for three more meetings this year. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the task force chairman, said the committee would try to reach a consensus on recommendations before going forward with legislation next year.

Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, a task force member, said she did not want the group to be bound to a strict timeline requiring legislation during the 2015 regular session. She said if it takes longer to finish the work, the issue is important enough to justify a special session.

"I think this is too important to rush," Figures said.

Ward said the group would be deliberative, but said the changes cannot be postponed beyond next year without inviting federal litigation.

In January, the Department of Justice reported that it found conditions at Julia Tutwiler Prison to be unconstitutional because of what it said was a failure to protect prisoners from sexual abuse by staff. The investigation is ongoing, and the state has disputed the findings and is making improvements at the women's prison.

But the Justice Reinvestment project is not focused on Tutwiler, but a much broader look at the criminal justice system, including sentencing, parole, probation, community corrections, crime trends and many other factors that contribute to the prison population.

Barbee showed the task force a long slide presentation with statistics about the flow of people through the various parts of the criminal justice system.

He said the CSG was only beginning to compile data to help figure out what's working and what's not working. He said the goal is to come up with evidence-based recommendations, rather than stick to traditional approaches that don't differentiate enough in how offenders are handled.

Barbee said there won't be any simple answers because sentencing practices in Alabama are complex and nuanced, with community corrections, probation, split sentences and other options.

Barbee said Alabama's prisons, with an in-house population of slightly more than 25,000, are at 190 percent of their designed capacity of about 13,000.

He said to reach 130 percent capacity, which is the level ordered in California prisons by federal courts, would require the equivalent of four 1,500-bed prisons at a construction cost of $420 million and an annual operating cost of $93 million.

Ward said that's not a reasonable solution, but said new prison construction has to be part of the long-range plan, partly because some Alabama prisons are aging and will eventually have to be replaced.

"There's no way you can build your way out, but you can't expect to solve this problem without new construction," Ward said.

Task force members expressed some concern about the accuracy of data that will be used to come up with recommendations. Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell said new sentencing guidelines that took effect Oct. 1, 2013 are already changing sentencing patterns and said he wanted to make sure those are taken into account.

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Ward Selected to Serve on Council of State Government's National Foundation Board of Trustees

May 5, 2013 – Alabaster, Ala.  – The Council of State Governments has asked Senator Cam Ward to join The Board of Trustees for their 21st Century Foundation. A mix of public- and private-sector representatives, CSG’s 21st  Century Foundation serves in a distinctive role helping to shape specific CSG future programming ideas. Your leadership on this important committee will be invaluable to state leaders.

“I’m excited to join The 21st Century Foundation,” Ward said. “It’s an honor to be considered among national leadership of this outstanding organization. CSG is partnering with Alabama on Prison Reform, conducts high level discussions on national energy policy and I look forward to shaping the future of best practices for state governments in these endeavors.”


Founded in 1933, The Council of State Governments is our nation’s only organization serving all three branches of state government. CSG is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. This offers unparalleled regional, national and international opportunities to network, develop leaders, collaborate and create problem-solving partnerships.


“We look forward to benefiting from [Senator Ward’s] time, energy and talent to guide the Council’s services in the years ahead,” said CSG Chair Mark Norris, The President Pro Tempore of The Tennessee Senate.

The 21st Century Foundation meets twice annually and hosts input from a bi-partisan group of elected officials from across the United States.  Ward is currently finishing his first year in the Alabama Senate where he serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Chairman of the Senate Energy Committee.

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Alabama Republican Takes Courages Stand

Alabama Republican state Senator Cam Ward gave a candid – even courageous – interview about prison reform, acknowledging root systemic issues and pressing for changes.

He said Alabama has "the most overcrowded, underfunded system in the United States today at 190 percent capacity."

Ward's interview appeared as Alabama struggles to address its broken corrections system and criticism intensifies.

In January, the U.S. Department of Justice sent to the state a 36-page letter charging that the Julia Tutwiler Prison violated the Constitution.

The Tutwiler facility houses women.

The DOJ said Tutwiler inmates "universally fear for their safety" and that the prison had "a history of unabated staff-on-prisoner sexual abuses and harassment."

Ward expressed gratitude for the female inmates speaking out about the "terrible unconstitutional conditions" at the facility.

When asked about the problem of increased incarceration, Ward said, "Where I think it started was probably in the early '90s when there was a large trend nationwide to get 'tough on crime' and 'lock 'em up and throw away the key.' And while we did get tough on crime, I think we weren't very smart about it. I think that's what led to the increase in penalties and enhanced sentencing in the '90s, which really led to a huge boom in the prison population all across the country."

Ward admitted that the "tough on crime" approach was part of the Republican agenda and pointed out that today the states at the forefront of prison reform are Republican states. Texas and Georgia were named.

"[Prison reform is] one of the few issues you see in Washington that's actually generated a little bit of bipartisan compromise … so I think there's room for both parties to work on it, and it will take both parties working on it too," he said. articles have repeatedly underscored the bipartisan nature of the prison issue through news stories about federal and state legislation to coverage of the premiere screening of "Through the Door" at Richmond's Bon Air Baptist Church. A 2013 news brief on conservative icon Richard Viguerie notes bipartisan efforts. A 2014 news piece on the State of the State addresses highlighted bipartisanship.

Yet one of the false narratives across the land is that only Democrats are committed to prison reform.

True, liberal Democrats are squawking about mass incarceration and ending the war on drugs. Yet blue states such as California have a notoriously broken prison system at 150 percent overcrowding.

Yet, Ward's plain-spoken interview is another illustration of grass-roots Republican leaders' commitment to addressing the issue.

A member of First United Methodist Church of Alabaster, Ward realistically acknowledges that fixing the nation's prison system will take years to reform.

Ward sees three necessary reforms. One is upgrading prisons.

Second is "finding alternative sentencing programs, cheaper more effective community corrections, drug courts, mental health courts."

And third is "doing everything we can to reduce recidivism."

If he is right and he surely is – that reforming the system will take years, then the question for churches is what they can do now to address the plight of the incarcerated.

After all, Jesus said his agenda was "to proclaim release to the captives" (Luke 4:18). He said visit those in prison (Matthew 25:31-45). He didn't say wait for government reform before taking initiatives.

A good first step for churches is moral education. And no better resource exists than "Through the Door."

We are looking for opportunities to introduce the documentary to church leaders, civic organizations, state legislators and correction officials.

We think the church has a constructive role to play inside prisons and to help those released from prison to avoid going back to prison.

As a staff, we're doing everything we can do to promote screenings of our documentary. If you would like to sponsor a screening, contact us.

Let's be proactive together.

Robert Parham is executive editor of and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.

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Ms. Shelby Ridge 2014 Crowned

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

It won’t be hard for judges at the Miss Alabama Nursing Home pageant in August to remember where Marian Shelby is from when she takes the stage.

“I am so proud and honored,” Shelby, 85, said as she was crowned Miss Shelby Ridge and Rehab Select during the facility’s pageant on May 8. “I’ll try to do my best to bring you honors.”

Shelby was one of six contestants who competed in the Miss Shelby Ridge pageant, which packed the facility’s cafeteria and event room. Bessie Smitherman was named first runner-up, Sarah Carter was second runner-up, Christy Ray was third runner-up, Mary Robbins was fourth runner-up and Agnes Chambers was fifth runner-up.

Shelby Ridge residents decked the room out in a Mardi Gras-inspired masquerade ball theme as the six women sought to represent the nursing home in the state pageant, which will be held this summer at the Wynfrey Hotel in Hoover.

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, served as the emcee, and asked the contestants questions about their lives and about their time at Shelby Ridge. Maurice Mercer, Janna Jones and Kristie Garrett served as judges in the pageant.

While responding to the question “What is your favorite activity?” Shelby said she enjoys the arts and crafts offered at Shelby Ridge, and said Mia is her favorite activity instructor.

Carter also praised Shelby Ridge while answering her question.

“It is a wonderful place. It’s clean, we have wonderful food, the staff is nice to us. What else can you ask for?” Carter said.

Chambers said she would have no qualms about recommending Shelby Ridge to anyone.

“If you have to go somewhere, this is the place to go,” Chambers said, garnering laughter from the crowd.

Robbins said her sons bring her the greatest pleasure in life, and always ask if there’s anything she needs when they visit her, and Ray said laughter is the key to a long and happy life.

Smitherman said the birth of her first child was the most exciting experience in her life, and said she is “blessed in so many ways.”

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Alabama Must Enact Prison Reform or Pay Big Financial Price


BIRMINGHAM, Alabama – Why should Alabama politicians care about issues within the state prison system? Why, for that matter, should residents care?

What's being done now to fix the problems, and what are the potential consequences if they aren't adequately addressed?

No one has all the answers, but state Sen. Cam Ward has increasingly familiarized himself with the system and the players during the past five years of his political career.

A team of reporters, collaborating with the Center for Investigative Reporting and WBHM, are taking a closer look at the state prison system as part of the Alabama Investigative Journalism Lab.

Last week, WBHM's Rachel Osier Lindley sat down for a lengthy talk with Ward, a Republican from Alabaster and chairman of the state legislature's prison oversight committee. Their interview addressed the prison system's history and how legislators and state officials can remedy current challenges.

[Listen to the 5-minute on-air interview and the extended 20-minute interview here.]

Here are some highlights:

Prisons aren't exactly a fun or popular cause for a person to take up in the legislature, so what first got you interested in prison reform?

Ward: "First of all, no one's ever run for election or re-election on the issue of how to solve prisons. I can tell you it's not a big issue in the minds of voters, but it should be. When you look at the rising costs of prisons in Alabama and you look at the issue of overcrowding and how... out of sync we are with the rest of the country, what it makes me realize is that if we don't do something about it soon it's going to create a huge, huge problem for our budget in the future. You know we love to proclaim ourselves to be a state that prides itself on the 10th Amendment but we would really be disregarding that pride we have if we totally let the federal courts come in and take over our prison system, and I think that's what's on the verge of happening. So I think we have to step up and make some bold political choices or else we're going to have a third or fourth of our general fund budget controlled by the federal government."

"We have to make some bold political choices or we're going to have a third or fourth of our general fund budget controlled by the federal government"

What kind of political heat do politicians take when working on prison issues – showing compassion to people in prison – and what kind of pressure does that put on you?

Ward: "Well it is a lot of pressure but if you look at what other states have gone through, you look at Texas, Kentucky, Georgia. Those are... so-called red states that tackled sentencing reform and it worked out great... They saved money. There's a lot of political pressure because there's a stigma there that you're soft on crime if you want to somehow resolve the prison problem. No one's being soft on crime; you're trying to be smart on crime... And as a state that loves to advocate for the bill of rights we talk often about the 1st, 2nd and 10th amendment but there's still a 3rd through the 9th amendment that we have to advocate for and the 8th amendment it clearly lays out cruel and unusual punishment, and if we violate that then the federal courts are going to take over... I'm not advocating for a prisoner to have certain rights over someone who hasn't committed a crime but if we don't maintain those basic rights a federal court's going to do it for us... It's not a politically popular position, but I think it's gaining traction with the awareness we're raising."

Right now the state prison system is under investigation. Do you feel like you or other members of the Alabama legislature's prison oversight committee are personally taking heat for this investigation by the Department of Justice?

Ward: "I think we have a responsibility to respond and do what we can to correct the system and if there are violations taking place that violate someone's rights under the 8th amendment then we need to step up... I have an obligation as a policymaker to make sure we're enacting or engaging in policy matters that are in compliance with the constitution and also good for the state, our state budget and our state system, so we're not catching personal heat but my opinion is we should be more concerned than we have been."

In January, the Department of Justice contacted Gov. Robert Bentley about what they characterized as unconstitutional conditions at the Julia Tutwiler prison in Wetumpka. How did this change the tone of the legislative session for the prison oversight committee?

Inside Julia Tutwiler prison

Ward: "I think it's raised the awareness level... For years going way back to the early '90s, there was a perception that we had to be tough on crime and forget everything else, and we should be tough on crime. There's no question about that, but we should also be smart on crime. I think what Tutwiler did was raise an awareness of 'Hey, we may be looking into a deep black hole that if we don't do something now we're going to fall off the edge of the cliff.' I think it raised an awareness level that some reforms are needed and if we don't engage in those reforms then we're going to pay a big financial price down the road for our state."

And during the 2014 legislative session the Alabama legislature passed a resolution that is creating a task force and that will work with the Council of State Governments on prison problems. What exactly will that task force do?

Ward: "In the past if you look at other states that have successfully navigated through the prison crises that they had, what they did was they had a group – Council of State Governments, which is a bipartisan group of policymakers from around the country – they had that group come in under their justice institute plan and... study your corrections system and make recommendations. It takes about an eight-month study, but they come in and recommend policy, sentencing reform, facilities – everything from A to Z in your system, what you can do to fix it and make it better. But they require you to have a task force of local officials, of local stakeholders to work with them, so the task force we created was to set the stage for them to come in and work with us, to make sure we had a group in place that's going to be very serious about... coming up with some real solutions and real ideas. And I think 2015's going to be the high water mark for sentencing reform in Alabama."

Sentencing reform is a big issue that you talk a lot about. What do you think that Alabama gets wrong with sentencing?

Ward: "There's a lot of disparities in the way we classify certain crimes. There's a disparity in how we classify crack cocaine as opposed to powder cocaine. They're both cocaine, yet we have different penalties. We have this notion in our mind that somehow, someway a nonviolent offender should get the same amount of time as a violent offender... Someone who commits a crime should be punished, there's no question about that. I think it's the degree of punishment what we're looking at. For example, it costs you $41 a day per inmate to put in the state prison... however, I could put that same nonviolent offender into a community corrections facility and it costs you $11 a day. Why wouldn't you take a nonviolent offender, save $30 per day per inmate putting them in a community corrections facility where they have to work and basically pay back their restitution, as opposed to putting them into a $41 a day lockup that quite honestly does nothing but create a masters' degree in criminals?"

Another thing that you are very passionate about besides sentencing reform is community corrections, and what does community corrections mean? Describe what that would look like for Alabama.

Ward: "Community corrections is different per county because every county has a different need... In Shelby County, for example, we have a very large heroin problem... so a community corrections program there may look like one where they stay, they work during the day and there's drug testing available for them... but also they have to go through rehabilitation, drug counseling and the like. Part of their work (would) help fund the facility they're staying in at night. It's a minimum security facility so... you don't have the same security enhancement costs as you do at a maximum security facility."

When did the prison issue start becoming a bigger problem in the state of Alabama?

Ward: "10 to 15 years ago as the population of inmates boomed; however, we first really started getting involved in it in the legislature probably too late, probably about two or three years ago. Two years ago was when we started seeing an uptick in the issues. The crowding issue has been growing for many years. We're at 192 percent capacity; however I would say that where it really started coming to a head was the first time we had some abuse allegations in Tutwiler. This was pre-DOJ report. We had some abuse allegations there but we also had some inmate-on-inmate violence in a couple other facilities, Donaldson as well as Elmore... We called a joint oversight committee meeting, met with the commissioner, met with the various wardens, talked to them about the issue. They agreed there were some things that needed to be addressed with the limited resources they have – security cameras, guards in training, just a host of issues – and then about a year ago, I would say when the DOJ started their investigation, we started becoming more engaged as far as touring the individual facilities, looking at... what needs to be addressed... There is one important thing to remember though – the DOJ report was based on a tour they did roughly a little over a year ago. All that's being reported on now, what their study was based upon was roughly a year, year and a half ago. There's been a lot of changes since their report took place."

So then that takes us into the legislative session for this year, when the Alabama legislature passed a resolution creating a task force to address some of these issues. And then earlier this month Gov. Robert Bentley announced that the state would be hiring a consulting firm to work with the state on addressing problems at Julia Tutwiler prison, and the state will also be working with the Council of State Governments justice center and a few other groups. What is the significance of the state doing this?

Ward: "First of all the biggest significance is that it's the first time in my 12-year career that I've seen the state actually take that seriously. It shows that we recognize there's a problem... and we've got to do something to fix it... I think 90 percent of the issue is awareness and recognizing the problem. Second, I think... it's going to give us a blueprint to go forward... We could throw a lot of bills against the wall and see if they stick, but at the end of the day if you really want to fix it you need to make sure you know first what statistics show, what is a data-driven solution to the problem... I think the big challenge, however, will be in 2015... The people that are going to be on the task force are going to be a broad group of folks... You're going to have all the way across the political spectrum, and I think you have to have that to have legitimacy and make the task force work. But the real challenge will be once that group produces a report and the Council of State Governments produces their report... that means next session it's going to require some real courage on behalf of lawmakers to pass these reforms."

The Council of State Governments Justice Center – tell me more about that group.

Ward: "They have been the leading driver behind prison reform across the country. They come in and they study the system. They get down to the details of data – your inmate incarceration, how many are nonviolent, how many are violent, what crime did they commit, how often do you have people coming back into the system after they've been released. They look at that and say 'Here's a set of recommendations' and the states that have adopted their recommendations have done very good... Now it won't happen overnight, but... over time they have adopted their recommendations, reduced their populations and at the same time saved money and had no increase in crime."

So what do you think it'll take for us to move forward?

Ward: "It took us years and years of neglect and kind of burying our heads in the sand to get here. It's going to take many, many, many years to get back out of it. I don't think it'll be one bill. I don't think there's going to be one budget proposal. I think you're looking at probably 12, 15 different proposals which, over time, will help us get out of this problem we're in. No one wants to be soft on crime. No one's out there saying prisoners are more important than victims; however, there are certain 8th amendment challenges we have that we have to comply with, and if we don't do that then the state of Alabama will suffer the financial consequences for generations to come."


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