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Critical Infrastructure Legislation Introduced

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and State Rep. Chip Brown (R-Mobile) on Thursday announced the filing of important legislation to bolster the protections of critical infrastructure assets in Alabama.

Companion bills filed in each chamber, Senate Bill 45 and House Bill 36 respectively, aim to amend a 2016 law which defined critical infrastructure in Alabama and created criminal penalties for unauthorized trespassing on such property.

The legislation filed Thursday adapts language from a variety of other states’ laws and adds the unauthorized use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to the trespassing statute which is a Class A misdemeanor. The legislation also imposes a Class C Felony for individuals who “injure, remove, destroy, break or otherwise interrupt or interfere with the operations of a critical infrastructure asset” during the commission of unauthorized entry.

“This legislation is an important step in enhancing a bill I sponsored and passed in 2016,” Ward said in a statement.

Ward is the chairman of the Alabama legislature’s Committee on Energy Policy.

“Critical infrastructure assets are the backbone of our quality of life in America and we must do everything we can to have the proper legal protections in place,” he continued. “Damaging critical infrastructure is a serious offense which can lead to significant safety and environmental hazards as well as disrupt economic activity across the state, region and even the entire country. With this legislation, we will ensure we continue to provide the necessary protections for our domestic energy security in Alabama. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate on this important issue.”

Brown reinforced the importance of the legislation.

“Alabama is blessed to be the home of a variety of critical infrastructure assets across the state,” he stated. “Not only do these assets provide jobs to Alabamians, but they also support our day-to-day lives with the resources we often take for granted.”

“We must continue to be vigilant with our efforts to combat any potential threats to our critical infrastructure both domestically and abroad and that is why I am pleased to sponsor this legislation. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to ensure we are leading the way towards protecting one of the very pillars of our society – our critical infrastructure,” Brown concluded.

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Prison Commission Makes Recommendations

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy has released its report on the state’s prison system and is making recommendations on how to address the challenges it faces.

Most of the policy recommendations surrounded reducing the recidivism rates.

There is a 30.7 percent recidivism rate for males and a 20.6 percent rate for females in the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC defines recidivism as an inmate who returns to the prison system within three years of release from prison.

The recommendations to reduce recidivism include providing more funding for in-custody educational programs. It would allow inmates to leave prison as productive members of society, the letter says.

The letter suggests providing inmates with educational incentives. For instance, the system would award some inmates with early release if they complete certain courses and maintain good behavior.

The study group heard hours of testimony from experts and family members throughout 2019. A common concern was that inmates did not have identification documents after being released, therefore, they could not obtain a job.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he wants the system to help inmates locate those documents before being released from prison.

“You walk out. They give you a check for $100. You get a bus ticket and you’re gone,” he said.

Ward said this increases the chances of someone returning to prison.

The specific recommendations throughout the letter are laid out in three areas: DOC operations, sentencing reforms, and recidivism reduction.

You can read all the details of the letter with the recommendations HERE.

You can read a compilation of additional details HERE.

Ward said several pieces of legislation will be drafted to resolve these issues. The legislative session begins Feb. 4.

Copyright 2020 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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Prison Study Commission Holds Final Meeting

Alabama legislators on Tuesday wrapped a study group on prison issues and possible reforms, including a renewed focus on programs such as in-prison educational opportunities and diversion programs that legislators believe could bring "long-term solutions" but acknowledged would be expensive for the state to implement.  

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he believes there is bipartisan support to address Alabama's embattled prison system, a subject of ongoing lawsuits and a searing Department of Justice investigation last spring. The study group is expected to deliver a report to Gov. Kay Ivey before the legislative session begins on Feb. 4.

Community corrections and diversion programs aimed at addressing offenders before they make it into the prison system were broadly discussed Wednesday, as well as increasing educational opportunities for prisoners that would provide benchmarks to work toward for parole as well as reduce the risk of prisoners re-offending.

"We've got the growth in the General Fund budget now to do it. But you've got to have the political will to commit yourself to do it. But for pennies on the dollar, you're saving taxpayers money," Ward said, pointing to data that shows recidivism drops dramatically when prisoners are better equipped to re-enter society. Ward says the state currently spends about $12 million on prison education, a fraction of the $1.8 billion General Fund budget. "Why not invest that money on the front end, so on the back end we're not making them a permanent burden on the taxpayers."

Legislators cautioned against allowing a piecemeal approach to community corrections and diversion programs, which Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said have sometimes drawn offenders into a vicious cycle of court costs from which they can't emerge. 

Ward, who finished a diversion program following a DUI arrest in 2015, agreed.

"I paid about $3,500 total to be in that program," Ward said. "But I bet I have a lot of neighbors who couldn’t write that check. And that’s a problem. I do think we need diversion programs in every county, but I think we’re going to have to pay for it."

Before the study group began, a rally for prison reform gathered outside of the Alabama State House. Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of advocates, legal groups and individuals directly impacted by incarceration, have increasingly called for outside oversight of prison reform initiatives.

“We call on Governor Ivey and state leaders to have the courage to break our state’s addiction to incarceration,” LaTonya Tate, executive director of Alabama Justice Initiative, said. “As a former parole officer for nearly a decade, I can say with certainty that Alabama cannot keep up these practices. Our system is inhumane and it doesn’t increase public safety.” 

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Prison woes in Alabama

Lethal violence in Alabama prisons increased year-over-year in 2019, the Montgomery Advertiser reported last week, with at least 12 men killed in inmate-on-inmate assaults and another two men killed by prison guards in incidents currently under investigation, according to Alabama Department of Correction's reports. Some advocacy and legal groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative believe homicide numbers are higher, and Department of Justice investigators this spring revealed ADOC has miscategorized and undercounted homicides in the past. 

Alabama prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, a lethal combination stakeholders say has been decades in the making. 

"I appreciate what Commissioner Dunn has worked with and the lack of resources often times he has been given," said Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody. "I know he’s been to the Legislature several times, we’ve turned him down, and here we are."

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, plans to again introduce legislation that would build an oversight framework for the Department of Corrections. England said the "forest fire" of conditions in ADOC was burning long before Dunn's administration, but he believes the Legislature should spearhead oversight of "periodic recording requirements" so the public knows what's going on inside of prison facilities. 

Ward said he would support the legislation.

"We should have monthly reporting requirements, real data, real facts," Ward said. "I should haven’t to go to the journalists out there to get data that we as legislators should have."

The AFJ Coalition on Tuesday afternoon released their own list of potential actions the state could take to reduce Alabama's prison population, including:

  • Reforming the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, under which hundreds of people are serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes
  • Reforming substance abuse laws
  • Reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes such as controlled substance possession or property theft
  • Addressing a drop in paroles granted under new Alabama's Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, which the coalition say could cause the prison population to "skyrocket" 

"Criminal justice reform will not happen in one session," Ward said. "It will take multiple sessions and multiple issues. If we’re serious about it, we’re going to have to invest the money, the political capital and the time to do it. I think it will be the biggest issue of the session."

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Pass Bill Denying Bail for Some Then Embark on Real Bail Reform

This is an opinion column.

If it saves one life.

That’s state Sen. Cam Ward’s mantra after sharing plans Tuesday to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session proposing an amendment to our arcane, outdated and embarrassment of an Alabama Constitution that would strip bail from those charged with specific serious crimes.

The idea being that some people—while still innocent, at least theoretically, until proven guilty—should not be walking our streets while awaiting trial for murder, rape, kidnapping, sodomy, sexual abuse or torture, and human trafficking. (Capital murder defendants are already denied bail.)

The idea being that because numerous crimes, especially homicides, are retaliatory the bail restriction just might keep the defendant alive.

The idea that some victims we came to know and mourn ourselves might be alive today, others may not have been victimized by violence.

If it saves one life.

The Alabaster Republican was motivated, he says, by the October death of 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard. Ibraheem Yazeed is charged with the kidnapping and murder of the Auburn-area college student; he was out on a $280,000 bond after being charged in a previous case with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of robbery and one count of attempted murder.

The woman awaiting trial as a co-defendant in the kidnapping and murder of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, also last October, was out on bond, too, after being charged with kidnapping her three children from DHR in a previous case.

Then just Tuesday, two Birmingham brothers, both out on bond for murder, were arrested for allegedly shooting two people in Bessemer in December.

State Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile introduced a similar bill last March; it passed the House but died in the dark of the state Senate. He plans to reintroduce it, too, during this session.

I hope one of them passes. (It takes a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate.) I hope our lawmakers display rare bipartisanship and allow us to vote on changing our abomination of a state Constitution.

So do Yashiba and Elijah Blanchard, Aniah’s parents (full disclosure: close friends, too). In a statement released on their behalf, the couple shared they “hope state legislators utilize their resources and power to enact legislation…that protects citizens in similar circumstances [as their daughter].”

Not everyone agrees, and I understand. I understand their trepidation and angst. Because, on the surface, the measure seems like reform in reverse, a Michael Jackson moonwalk, critics charge, that could lead to more people being left behind bars before their day in court.

There is no evidence proving that though, not in the handful of states that enacted similar laws. Not in Arizona, where someone charged with a felony can be denied bail if “the court finds after a hearing … that there is clear and convincing evidence that the person charged poses a substantial danger to another person or the community…”

Both bills to be introduced in Montgomery next month contain similar language requiring prosecutors to meet some standard before bail can be denied.

“The way you have to do these bills, you have to make them narrowly tailored,” Ward, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me on Wednesday. “You can’t say ‘any violent offenders’ or you run into constitutional problems.

“This is probably a small number of people we’re talking about—extreme cases. I don’t think we’ll see a huge spike in [bail denial] for any population.”

Three states—New Jersey, Alaska, and New York—have variously abolished cash bonds, relying instead on a point system to determine if a defendant should be released, held or something in between. Like, say, house arrest. Last year, California eliminated cash bail altogether.

I hope debate on the Alabama bills spark a wider, and more vital, effort to finally reform a system never intended to be a $2 billion industry nationwide that overly incarcerates those who simply cannot afford to pay. And truly, a system that does not anymore guarantee a court appearance than those released without a cash bond.

Never intended to penalize the innocent (and poor)-until-proven-guilty, as it does now. Never intended to be all-but extortion. (AL.com’s Anna Claire Vollersreports more than 75 municipal courts in Alabama over the past few years have reformed their bail practices so that poor people charged with minor offenses don’t have to remain in jail when they can’t afford to post bond.)

In its origins, during England’s Anglo Saxon period (410-1066), “money bail” was simply a means to settle disputes. No money changed hands. A defendant only had to demonstrate their ability to pay the victim if the defendant ran off—a surety, usually a relative, guaranteed payment.

It didn’t start to become an industry until the early years of the 20th centurywhen it became harder to find a relative willing to sign and easier to skip town. Then the courts stepped in, requiring bonds to be paid in full before release.

By the mid-1960s, the bail bond industry was an entrenched component of a system just beginning to be fueled and fed by the systemic targeting of African Americans for what would now be considered relatively minor, victimless drug offenses.

Or, better yet, an epidemic worthy of treatment, not judicial mistreatment.

In Norman Pannell vs United States, a bail bonding case argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit in 1963, Judge J. Skelly Wright stated in a concurring majority opinion:

”Certainly the professional bondsman system … is odious at best. The … professional bondsmen hold the keys to the jail in their pockets. They determine for whom they will act as surety — who in their judgment is a good risk. The bad risks, in the bondsmen's judgment, and the ones who are unable to pay the bondsmen's fees, remain in jail. The court and the commissioner are relegated to the relatively unimportant chore of fixing the amount of bail.”

Now the immeasurably very important chore of protecting us all and continuing to reform our broken system falls to our state lawmakers, then, hopefully, to us.

“If it saves one life,” Ward says, “It’s worth, it.”

A voice for what’s right and wrong in Birmingham, Alabama (and beyond), Roy’s column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as in the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register. Reach him at rjohnson@al.com and follow him at twitter.com/roysj

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Sen. Ward Sponsors Bill to Deny Bail to Most Violent Offenders

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said today he would propose an amendment to the Alabama Constitution to take away the right to bail for defendants accused of some of the most serious crimes.

Ward said he was motivated, in part, by the death of college student Aniah Blanchard in October. Ibraheem Yazeed, who is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Blanchard, had been released on a $280,000 bond on two counts of kidnapping, two counts of robbery and one count of attempted murder when he was arrested in the Blanchard case.

“This was somebody who shouldn’t have been on the streets,” Ward said. “Had this person not been on the street, that girl would be alive today.”

Section 16 of the Alabama Constitution affirms the right to bail except for those charged with capital offenses.

Ward’s bill, which he said he would introduce for the legislative session that starts in three weeks, would say that people charged with murder, rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture, human trafficking and kidnapping could not be released on bond before their trial.

If approved by three-fifths of the members of the Senate and House it would go on the ballot for voters to have the final say on whether to change the state Constitution.

Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, is also sponsoring a bill to amend the state constitution to allow more people charged with serious crimes to be held without bail. Brown’s amendment would expand the exception to a right to bail to cover Class A felonies involving danger to the victim, like first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery, and murder charges that are not capital offenses. Brown sponsored the bill last year, too, but it did not pass.

Ward said he would expect his bill to be challenged in court if it becomes law.

“But I’m not worried about the constitutionality in the courts,” Ward said. "I’ve seen it upheld in other states. It’s constitutional. It’s been said so by the courts. But more importantly than folks filing lawsuits, it’s about the public safety. Victims of crime."

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Ward chairs the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and has been a leader in criminal justice reform efforts in Alabama.

“I do believe in reforming our system,” Ward said. “It’s broken. But at the same time, it’s a balancing act. It can’t be all one way or the other. And this is one of those that I truly believe should put the victims first and public safety first. And I think we should always keep that in mind when we’re dealing with criminal justice in Alabama.”

Ward is serving his third term in the Senate after two terms in the House. He is running for the Republican nomination for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court against Justice Greg Shaw.

Ward said he studied laws in other states and said his proposal is similar to Arizona’s.

The legislative session starts Feb. 4.

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Sen. Ward Says He Will Re-File Open Records Bill

A state senator said Tuesday he’ll bring back a bill to improve Alabama’s open records law. But its fate could depend on the groups that stood in opposition to it last year. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said in a phone interview that he had been meeting with organizations representing state agencies and local governments about his bill, which aims to make government more responsive to those requests and limit fees for documents.

“We’re working with a law based on 20th century technology in the 21st century,” he said. “These records belong to the people and the taxpayers.”

Alabama’s open records law is one of the weakest in the nation. It does not require agencies to respond to requests, or even acknowledge them. It also sets no limit on the fees that an agency can charge for documents. 

Ward proposed legislation last year that would require public bodies to respond to public records requests within five days by providing documents; providing some of the documents requested, or denying it. If an agency denied a request, the agency would have to cite specific state law for doing so. 

The bill would also have set a strict schedule of fees for obtaining copies of forms. It would also have provided an appeals process that could lead to sanctions for records custodians who did not respond in a timely manner. 

But groups representing local governments objected to the bill, saying they feared that requests could overwhelm local governments, or put local government employees at the risk of litigation. The bill did not get out of committee. 

Greg Cochran, the deputy director of the Alabama League of Municipalities, said on Tuesday they planned to meet with Ward on Thursday. 

More: Open records bill runs into local government concerns

“We want to make sure we’re not over inundating our smaller communities by allowing anyone to request information,” he said. “A lot of our smaller municipalities have limited staff. To put in bulk requests from think tanks and different organizations outside of Alabama -- it takes time, energy and resources to provide that information in a timely manner.”

Ward said he expected the bill filed for the 2020 legislative session, which begins in February, to resemble the legislation filed last year. He said he understood that local governments did not want to face “frivolous requests that will overload them.”

“We welcome their input,” he said. “We welcome their suggestions. The notion we do nothing is unacceptable.”

 

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Ward Re-Elected Chairman of Joint Legislative Energy Committee

State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) this week was reelected chairman of the Alabama legislature’s Committee on Energy Policy.

This bipartisan, bicameral committee is tasked with recommending courses of action to tackle Alabama’s energy challenges to the governor and the legislature as a whole.

In a statement, Ward said, “It is an honor to once again lead this team of citizen-legislators, as we work with Governor Ivey’s administration to craft policies that will encourage the development of cheap and reliable energy sources.”

“These are unprecedented times in the energy industry, and we need policies that breakdown the intrusive government regulations that so often hold the private sector back from delivering innovative energy solutions to consumers,” he added.

The energy policy committee is made up of 13 state legislators, including four members appointed by the speaker of the House of Representatives and four appointed by the president pro tem of the Alabama State Senate.

A 2016 study by Auburn University at Montgomery showed that the total economic impact of Alabama’s energy industry was $13.22 billion annually. Additionally, the study found that the energy industry generates 124,000 jobs in the Yellowhammer State.

“In so many ways, Alabama is at the forefront in producing cheap, reliable energy for the country,” Ward outlined. “The Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant is the second-largest nuclear facility in the U.S., we rank fifth in the nation in electricity generated from biomass or wood and wood waste, and we have the third-highest number of offshore oil rigs in the country.”

“Alabama’s energy companies are doing inventive work and my goal is that we have policies in place that will reward innovative solutions, which will lead to reduced energy prices for families and businesses,” he concluded.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

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Shelby Baptist Medical Center Celebrates 60th Anniversary

ALABASTER – Several members of the Alabaster and Shelby County community united on Monday, Sept. 9, to celebrate the 60th anniversary of Shelby Baptist Medical Center.

The event included a cocktail hour, opportunities for guests to tour parts of the recently renovated hospital and special presentations from local and state government officials.

Alabaster Mayor Marty Handlon presented a proclamation to the hospital in celebration of its 60th anniversary. The hospital also received a commendation from Gov. Kay Ivey and a resolution from the Alabama Senate, which was drafted by Sen. Cam Ward.

Handlon said Shelby Baptist plays an important role in the city, which is a part of the reason why the Alabaster City Council put a lot of energy and effort into creating and protecting the city’s Medical Mile district that runs along U.S. 31.

The city’s proclamation recognized the hospital’s progression from a small community hospital with only 35 beds, eight physicians and 25 nurses, to a cutting-edge hospital with 252 beds and a full range of healthcare services and treatments.

The hospital has physicians located throughout Shelby County, Clanton, Hoover and the U.S. 280 area, according to Brian Pavlick, the hospital’s marketing manager.

“We have transitioned from the era of people having to travel outside of Alabaster to receive high quality care to a time when more and more people outside our community turn to Shelby Baptist Medical Center to meet their every health care need,” the proclamation reads.

While presenting the Senate resolution, Ward said the health of a community can be determined by two things: schools and health care.

“That’s just a truth,” he said. “Looking at this facility, the growth over the years, and how the schools have grown, this community is truly blessed. I’m rooting for your success because it’s vital to our community.”

Shelby Baptist CEO Daniel Listi thanked guests for spending their evening celebrating Shelby Baptist. He also recognized hospital employees and those who paved the way for him.

“I’m just a small piece of what makes Shelby Baptist Medical Center amazing,” he said. “I’ve been here for just one of the 60 years and it’s an honor to be able to work here.”

As a testament to the hospital’s commitment to excellence, it has earned various distinctions including Joint Commission accolades, the Blue Cross Blue Shield Distinction in Cardiac Care Award from 2013-2017, the VHA Leadership Award for Clinical Excellence, Clinical Quality Improvement and Acute Myocardial Infraction in 2009 and the VHA Leadership Award for Clinical Excellence, Patient Experience Superior System Performance in 2009.

The hospital also recently celebrated 25 years of offering women’s services, started an employee benevolence/assistance program, spent about $10 million on renovations throughout the hospital and one of its nurses, Marcy Campbell, recently won The Shelby County Chamber’s Health Care Professional of the Year award.

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Governor Signs Human Trafficking Bills

(Montgomery, AL) – August 13, 2019


Governor Kay Ivey ceremoniously signed HB261 into law on Monday, which makes Alabama
the 9th state to pass a law mandating human trafficking training for new CDL drivers.

Alabama Assistant Minority Leader Rep. Merika Coleman (D-Birmingham) sponsored the bill with Education Policy Chair Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur). Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison (D-Birmingham) and Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) guided the bill through the Senate.

HB261 requires all new commercial driver licensees to undergo industry-specific human trafficking training. Truckers Against Trafficking, a national organization that trains truckers on identifying human trafficking victims in their daily work life, will work with junior colleges and trade schools to facilitate the training.

“Professional truck drivers are in a critical position to recognize human trafficking, and when properly equipped, to know how to respond,” said Kylla Lanier, Deputy Political Director of Truckers Against Training. “To know that Alabama has decided to educate and empower the next generation of professional drivers at the CDL school level with anti-trafficking training is phenomenal!”

“This is another step in expanding the tools in the toolbox to combat human trafficking,” stated Rep. Merika Coleman. “I want to thank the House co-sponsor Rep. Terri Collins, Senate sponsor Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, and Senate co-sponsor Sen. Cam Ward.”

“We could not have done this without Sen. Ward’s tremendous dedication and work in seeing them over the finish line before sine die,” continued Rep. Coleman. “I look forward to continuing this bi-partisan work next year, perhaps following Florida’s lead in requiring human trafficking awareness in schools.”

The Alabama legislature unanimously passed two bi-partisan human trafficking bills this session: HB261 & HB262 and two House Joint Resolutions: HJR145 and HJR244. HB262 was pocket-vetoed by Governor Ivey after her team discovered a clerical error in a late addition amendment. Coleman expects to re-introduce the bill next session.

HB262 clarifies existing law to prohibit publishing photos of those charged with the act of prostitution, while allowing for publishing photos of those charged with soliciting or procuring prostitution. The bill is aimed at deterring “John’s” from purchasing sex and supporting human trafficking, while protecting potential victims of human trafficking from public identification.

HJR145 encourages Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to continue developing curriculum to ensure that every law enforcement officer and agent in the state is trained regarding human trafficking victim identification.

HJR244 creates the Alabama Healthcare Human Trafficking Training Program Commission, which is tasked with developing a training module for all healthcare related employees to readily identify and provide trauma-centered care for human trafficking victims.

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Governor's Prison Study Group Begins Looking at Issues

Bill Lundsford, speaking for the Department of Corrections at today’s first meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group, illustrated one problem with Alabama’s prison system which summed up several others.

The ADOC hasn’t built a new prison facility since the Internet became widely available to the general public, he said. That presents a problem for prison authorities when they try to add computers for inmate enrichment programs to facilities without air conditioning.

The statement crystallized Alabama’s dilemma - prisons too hot for computers, crowded beyond their capacities with inmates, most of whom will eventually return to society needing preparation to gain employment and rejoin productively.

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, chaired by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, met at the Alabama State House to begin discussions about issues with the state’s correctional system that go back decades. Lundsford, an attorney who represents the ADOC, gave a talk about the department’s ongoing legal issues and challenges in staffing and infrastructure.

Alabama’s prisons, currently at 164 percent their capacity, have about $750 million in deferred maintenance issues. The department is paying roughly $50 million more for inmate healthcare than it was a decade ago, and has about 1,000 fewer security staff than in 2009.

At the same time, the department is dealing with the settlement requirements of a long-running lawsuit over mental health care for prisoners, and the fallout from a Justice Department report earlier this year detailing an atmosphere of violence in prisons that investigators said violate the U.S. Constitution.

Lyons, speaking for the committee, said it plans to not only look at the ongoing issues, but along broader lines such as policy initiatives to improve prison conditions, reform sentencing, address future needs and reduce recidivism. The committee tentatively plans to tour a prison in August.

Lundsford, speaking to the committee, said a federal takeover of Alabama’s prisons, such as one that occurred in California, seems unlikely because of the federal Prison Litigation Reform Act, which specifies how prison conditions may be addressed by court order. Lundsford said California’s case had been much longer in duration than Alabama’s before a takeover. That state had a longer history of failed remedies, and courts can only address conditions by the least intrusive means, he said.

A few committee members raised their eyebrows when it appeared that Lundsford was saying Alabama did not have an overcrowding issue.

“Are you sitting here telling us that we’re not overcrowded in the state of Alabama?” State Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked. “I’m just dealing with DOC numbers here."

Lundsford, and later Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn, said he wasn’t addressing the actual staffing numbers, but a murkier point - the legal definition of prison overcrowding. “It wasn’t from a physical or architectural standpoint,” Lundsford said later.

He also said talks with the Justice Department regarding a settlement following the DOJ investigation are ongoing, but said ADOC disputes the report’s contention that a climate of violence and abuse is rampant throughout the system’s men’s prisons.

Several committee members said the Legislature took a necessary first step in its last session by increasing funding for prisons, partly to raise pay for correctional officers. The Ivey administration has issued a request seeking companies qualified to build three men’s prisons that the state would lease. The new prisons would house about 10,000 inmates, about half of Alabama’s current prison population. Some of the existing prisons would close under the plan.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who previously sat on other prison reform committees, said he felt this time, there’s interest in real action.

“The big difference is the governor is wanting to take the initiative,” Ward said. “The level of commitment she has put forth, the interest in sentencing, the facilities, the conditions.”

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