Latest News

Chilton County Career Tech Class Receives Grant

Clanton — Chilton County High School career preparedness students are getting an updated classroom thanks to Community Service Grant funding and State Senator Cam Ward.

Ward visited the school on Feb. 14 to meet the teachers receiving the funds. He said the Community Service Grant funds are available to legislators to help local school systems.

“I really like to do a lot geared to technology,” Ward said.

Teacher Kayla Cantley said she emailed Ward about the need for new computer tables in her classroom. Later, she was notified that $2,000 could be allocated to the project.

The tables will allow a better computer lab set up. Cantley said the tables the computers are on now are not sturdy. All of the tables face the walls making it difficult for the students to see the SmartBoard, an interactive board used to display computer programs.

“Right now if they want to see the SmartBoard, we all have to get up close to the door, and it’s just not really a good fit,” Cantley said.

As a part of the upgrade, the room layout will be rearranged, so that the SmartBoard and teaching area will not be near the door. The tables will all face the SmartBoard, making it easier for students to see.

Teacher Kelli Inman said the career preparedness course addresses the college application process, resume writing, job interviews and personal finance.

The teachers coordinate lessons, so that students in each class are learning the same thing each week.

Cantely and Inman said they were thankful for the funds and Ward making a personal visit to the school.

Add your reaction Share

Ward Passes Bill to Crack Down on Opioid & Fentanyl Trafficking

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Today the Senate Judiciary Committee gave favorable report to a bill that will dramatically strengthen penalties for the possession and trafficking of the synthetic opioid fentanyl, a substance that is about fifty times stronger than heroin.

Currently, the possession of fentanyl can only be charged as the unlawful possession of a controlled substance, a Class D felony for which the maximum prison sentence is two years.

“In Jefferson County alone, fentanyl deaths increased by 114% in a single year,” SB154’s sponsor, Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), said. “This is an unbelievably powerful drug and the illegal use and trafficking of Fentanyl are creating a public health and criminal justice crisis.”

Senate Bill 154 would make the possession of fentanyl or heroin a Class C felony, which carries a sentencing range of up to ten years in prison. The legislation is supported by new Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Used as a pain reliever for patients, fentanyl is among the most powerful opioids prescribed by medical providers. Its street form is uniquely dangerous since the drug can be absorbed via the skin or inhalation.

“District attorneys and law enforcement have fought the devastating effect of dangerous drugs on the citizens and communities of Alabama for decades,” said Barry Matson, Executive Director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

“We have seen addiction destroy lives and perhaps most devastatingly of all, addiction takes the hope of mothers and fathers and the God-given human potential for a life free from the pain that comes with debilitating addiction,” Matson continued. “This is legislation we have crafted with Sen. Ward and it is critically needed in the fight against criminal drug smugglers, distributers and traffickers who apply their deadly trade in Alabama.”

Ward’s proposal also increases the penalty for unlawful possession of heroin from a Class D to a Class C felony, and now heads on to the entire State Senate for consideration.

Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

1 reaction Share

Prison Fellowship Changes Lives

Life has its ups and downs.  Sometimes only when we get outside of our own little bubble and experience something different can we truly appreciate all the challenges the world can offer. If we choose to hide our faces from uncomfortable subjects, it can lead to a much more narrow view of the world.

As a member of the national Faith and Justice Fellowship of the Prison Fellowship, I recently attended our Board of Directors meeting in Washington, D.C.  This diverse group of United States Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and state legislators gathered to discuss new ideas about how to help bring more Christian-based principles into our criminal justice system. The meeting was timely, as it coincided with the annual National Day of Prayer.

When we think of fellowship and prayer, it often seems contradictory to the criminal justice system. Someone goes to prison because they did something wrong in the crime they committed. The Bible even says in Isaiah 61:8 that God loves justice. Punishment is at the very foundation of our system of justice in the United States.  Still, as I sat through this meeting, I could not help but think about the various parts of the Bible that admonish us to pray for everyone, even those who have gone down the wrong path in life. It is easy to pray for good people; however, it is a tougher soul searching experience to pray for those who have done terrible things in their lives.

In the United States today, 98% of those sentenced to prison eventually finish their terms and are released.  That equates to roughly 700,000 people a year who leave the system and return to society.  Thousands of Christian leaders throughout the nation visit prisons, talk with families, and comfort the victims of crimes. Listening to the stories that these leaders have shared with others, I am convinced that this compassion and fellowship has lifted the lives and outlook for many people who will have to move ahead despite their previous actions or experiences in life.

I applaud those who offer to bring light and hope to all of those who struggle in life. Both victims and offenders are children of God and those engaged in prison fellowship demonstrate this everyday. While the criminal justice system should be allowed to provide swift and certain justice, we should also continue to pray for all of our fellowmen. 

Add your reaction Share

Prison Construction Bill to Have Strong Debate

MARY SELL, DECATUR DAILY

MONTGOMERY — Alabama Speaker of the House Rep. Mac McCutcheon said he’s not sure where the 105-member chamber stands on Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison construction plan.

“It’s too early to say,” McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said after a Joint Legislative Prison Committee on Monday.

He said he expects a healthy discussion, including questions about how the massive contract would be awarded, what will happen to the state’s current prisons and where the new ones would be built.

McCutcheon said the location question is important to some lawmakers. It wasn’t answered last year when the prison plan died in the Legislature, he said.

“It will be an economic impact on some of those districts, and because of that, they want to take care of their districts,” McCutcheon said.

But Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said identifying where the four mega-prisons will be built could hurt the legislation’s chances of passage.

Lawmakers asked Monday what would become of the shuttered prisons and were told some communities have expressed interest in taking over at least some facilities.

One of the prisons that could be affected is the Limestone Correctional Facility in Harvest, which opened in 1984.

Last week, Bentley said more lawmakers were buying into his proposal to borrow the $800 million and pay back the loan with money saved by closing outdated, crowded and understaffed facilities. The bill is expected to be a priority in the session, which starts Tuesday.

McCutcheon said the legislation will be taken up early in the session but not rushed. He said he hasn’t decided how he will vote.

Bentley and the Department of Corrections have been working on data to prove the prisons are needed and that building four at once under one contract will save money.

DOC recently paid an engineering firm to conduct an architectural and engineering study on 17 prisons. The full report, said to be more than 1,000 pages, has not been made available. The department said a public records request would be needed to obtain it.

Information presented recently by DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn states needed improvements to the state’s 17 existing prisons would cost more than $440 million.

Seven of the 17 prisons were recommended for closing, based on their age and extent of needed repairs.

Meanwhile, $109 million “could extend useful life” of three newer prisons, including Limestone Correctional Facility.

According to the DOC, the new prisons would save the following each year:

• $17 million in reduced staffing. The new facilities would allow for a 6 percent reduction in security staff and 19 percent reduction in support staff, including administration, food service, accounting and transportation.

• $21 million reduction of overtime. The department spends about $30 million in correctional officer overtime per year.

• $10 million in consolidation of health care delivery.

• $2 million in other consolidation of services, including food services and utilities.

Ward said another corrections-related bill coming up in the Legislature will have Medicaid pick up more medical costs of eligible inmates in county jails, including mental health treatment costs.

Currently, county jail inmate’s Medicaid care is terminated when they enter jail, and it takes about three months to reinstate coverage when they leave jail, Ward said.

Add your reaction Share

Sen Ward Speaks at Helena Kiwanis Club

By GRAHAM BROOKS / Staff Writer

HELENA–State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, took time out of his morning on Tuesday, Jan. 17, to address the Helena Kiwanis Club for nearly half an hour at the clubs’ weekly meeting to discuss a variety of political topics.

Ward pointed out that a number of years ago, the Helena Kiwanis Club was the first Kiwanis Club that Ward ever addressed and to this day, he comes back to speak to the club annually.

Kiwanis members enjoyed breakfast while listening to Ward address the club and answer questions.

Ward touched on the recent victory of Donald Trump in the election to become the 45th President of the United States.

“Republicans should be happy because they pulled an upset win in this last election,” Ward said. “I was not a Trump guy, I was a Rubio person in the primary but Republicans really pulled off one of the biggest upsets ever. Now the problem is, Republicans control it all so there’s no excuses. I think looking at Washington there’s a couple things I see coming out of Washington that’s different. There’s a lot of unknown. A lot of people don’t know the philosophy in which President Trump is going to go because he’s never cast a vote and he’s never had to make a public position on policies.”

Ward said that he didn’t think the uncertainty was a bad thing, citing Trump has a solid agenda and ideas and millions of Americans chose to vote for Trump because they wanted a change.

Ward will be attending Trump’s inauguration the week of Jan. 16 and said it is one of the most interesting things a person can attend and witness.

“I am going to the inauguration this week,” Ward said. “My wife has never been and I’m taking her. If you’ve never done it, that is one of the most interesting and fun historical things in the world. I might be one of the only people around here to go to both Democrat and Republican presidential inaugurations. I love the history of it and I love the ceremony.”

Aside from discussing Trump, Ward answered questions from Kiwanis members that included a question about the recent push for the lottery in the last legislative session.

“I was for the lottery and I caught a lot of heat for this,” Ward said. “I was for letting people vote on the lottery and I think people who were for the lottery made a hard, hard push this last session. It passed the Senate with one vote to spare and then went to the house and fell to pieces. Two things kill the lottery; one being everyone who says I’m for the lottery but I want it to go to this. You have all these people who are for the lottery but if it doesn’t go to their particular area like Medicaid or education it just falls apart. Two, casino gambling folks hate the lottery and they spend lots of money every year to feed the lottery.”

Ward is currently preparing for the Alabama Legislature’s next regular session on Feb. 7 in Montgomery.

Add your reaction Share

Alabama Correctional Officer Numbers Down 20%

MONTGOMERY ADVERTISER

The frustrations piled up long before Jonathan Truitt ended his career as a corrections officer.

A sergeant at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville, Truitt started at Holman Correctional Facility in 2008. He had been working in a sawmill and worked out with several correctional officers at a local YMCA, who mentioned the department was hiring. With the economy starting to slip into recession, it seemed like a good move. After more than three years at Holman, Truitt won a promotion to St. Clair in 2012.

The work at the prison -- notorious for its violence -- grew harder and harder. There were long shifts lasting up to 16 hours. Searches of cell blocks could yield “30 to 40 knives” in a cell block with 24 cells. The equipment COs had, Truitt said, was subpar: Pepper spray cans might be half full, and radios might lack decent batteries or chargers.

Keeping order, Truitt said, became ever more difficult. Inmates, he said, were “being assaulted in every way imaginable,” Truitt said in a recent interview, saying it could "take days if not weeks" to identify the guilty parties, "if we did find out." Contraband in the prison, he said, "is out of control."

"We don’t have the officers to get the contraband," he said. "When we go into the blocks to search, we would be met with resistance from inmates.”

But it was an incident at Truitt's old prison that led him to step away. In September, Officer Kenneth Bettis, an Iraq War veteran who Truitt worked with at Holman, was stabbed by an inmate; according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, the inmate attacked Bettis for denying him an extra plate of food. Bettis died of injuries two weeks later.

At that point, Truitt said, he thought about the costs to his family should he be killed in the line of duty. He resigned last month.

“My original intention was, do 25 years and retire,” he said. “The plans got changed real quick.”

Hundreds gone

Many other corrections officers have also decided to step away. According to ADOC records, the number of COs assigned to state prisons fell from 2,042 in September 2015 to 1,627 this past September, a 20 percent drop in the workforce. Not only did that drop come on top of a long-term decline in the number of COs in the prisons -- there were 2,342 officers assigned to Alabama correctional facilities in September 2011 -- it exceeded it, a fact department officials are very aware of.

“We saw the most significant dip in one year than in the past five years,” Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn said in a recent interview.

Systemwide, the state’s prisons had just 45.6 percent of their authorized officers working in the prisons in September. Four medium-security facilities – Bibb, Easterling, Fountain/J.O. Davis and Ventress – had less than a third of their authorized officers working in the facilities.

Turnover in correction officer ranks is not unusual, but staffing issues are becoming more acute because the number of people applying to be corrections officers is falling. According to Dunn, about 100 officers graduated from their academy in 2016. “In years prior to that, that number was 200, 250,” he said. An academy class currently underway “only has roughly 25 officers in it, when the norm we would like to see is 70.”

“I think the public has become very aware of the conditions inside our facilities, and that gives people pause,” Dunn said. The decline in CO ranks has come amid an increase in violence. Total year-to-date assaults went up from 1,362 reported incidents in September 2015 to 1,764 in September 2016, an increase of 29.5 percent. Reported assaults on staff—including assaults with serious injury and those involving thrown substances – increased from 465 in September 2015 to 521 in September 2016, a jump of 12 percent.

Eric Wynn, released from St. Clair on Aug. 29 after serving 10 years in various state prisons on drug charges, called the facility “extremely dangerous.”

“It was like a jungle,” he said. “If you weren’t strong enough or didn’t carry a knife, your property got taken.”

At St. Clair, reported year-to-date assaults increased from 157 in September 2015 to 249 in September 2016, a 58.5 percent increase, though an ADOC intervention in the prison last spring helped reduce monthly assaults down through September. Still, Charlotte Morrison, an attorney with the Montgomery-based Equal Justice Initiative, which has sued the state over prison conditions, said “knives are ubiquitous” at St. Clair.

“People go for hours without seeing a correctional officer,” she said. “We have staff report they have trouble seeing a correctional officer. This is a really dangerous environment.”

There’s broad agreement that the conditions of the prisons contribute to the decline. Low pay does as well: A corrections officer trainee starts making $28,516.80 a year, compared to $35,589.60 for a state trooper trainee. Dunn says he will include money for a pay raise in his 2018 budget request, though the department was still working on the details of proposal last month. The corrections budget — and any adjustment in pay — will need to be approved by the Alabama Legislature. Dunn and Gov. Robert Bentley will also renew a campaign to replace most of the state’s prisons with four new facilities, which they say will improve safety for staff and inmates in the facilities.

Truitt and Randall McGilberry, president of the Alabama Corrections Officer Association, which lobbies for corrections officers, agree that the conditions are a problem but also say that corrections officers are suffering from what they call a lack of leadership within the prison system.

“(COs) are leaving their chosen careers and making more money doing something else, and in a much safer situation,” McGilberry said. “It’s really the management. There’s just total incompetence in the management right now.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who sponsored a major prison reform bill in 2015, said “morale is at an all-time low” for corrections officers.

“It’s the most dangerous law enforcement job in the state, but they’re paid the least,” he said.

Populations decline; assaults don’t

The thinning CO ranks appear to be offsetting a notable decrease in the state’s inmate population. There were 23,328 prisoners in Alabama’s correctional facilities in September, a drop of about 3.6 percent over the previous year.

Overcrowding still remains high. Alabama's prisons were built to hold 13,318 inmates, and the drop brought the system’s total capacity down from 181 percent to 175 percent – an improvement, but still among the highest in the nation, and one that has brought lawsuits that could force many remedies, including new construction or the release of inmates. But the fall continues a slow but steady trend: Over the last five years, the total population in state prisons has fallen by 2,000 inmates.

Officials attribute this year’s decline to reforms to presumptive sentencing guidelinesapproved in 2013, and the 2015 prison bill, which reclassified some offenses and made new investments in parole and probation with a goal of reducing recidivism.

“We anticipate over the next three to four years, we’ll see upwards of maybe a 6, 8, or 10 percent decrease in our inmate population,” Dunn said. “That’s not to say that we don’t think we ought to continue to work for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform. We think there’s still areas that need to be discussed. But these are encouraging signs.”

The drop has in some cases allowed the department to redeploy staffers. At Holman, where overcrowding fell from 140 percent to 134 percent between September 2015 and September 2016, the department combined two small facilities at the prison, allowing them to “shift a significant portion of that staff into Holman,” according to Dunn.

But the loss of corrections officers has driven inmate-to-CO ratios up throughout the system. There were 11.8 inmates for every corrections officer in September 2015, according to ADOC numbers; that increased to 13.4 inmates for every corrections officer this past September. In Bibb, Easterling and Fountain correctional facilities, the ratio exceeded 20 inmates for every one corrections officer.

That means long hours for the officers who work in the facilities.

“They don’t have proper equipment, (and) they work tons of overtime,” said McGilberry. “If something did break out, a lot of guys would be so fatigued they wouldn’t be able to respond properly.”

In an email, Bob Horton, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections, said some officers at St. Clair had expressed concerns with equipment issues. "In the past 12 months, the warden has taken steps to ensure each officer is properly equipped and a sufficient supply of required security items are on-hand and accessible for each shift," Horton wrote.

Fewer officers also mean fewer disciplinary write-ups; the system saw year-to-date disciplinary write-ups fall 10 percent from September 2015 to September 2016, with major disciplinaries down 11 percent as assaults climbed.

There were high-profile outbursts of violence last year, including the murder of two inmates at Elmore County Correctional Facility, and riots at Holman where, in March, the warden was stabbed. The drop in staffing, Dunn said, plays a role.

“Could we say if one more officer or two more officers could have prevented (the riots)?” Dunn said. “I don’t think we can say that definitively. But I know if we’d had 20 officers there, we’d have a different dynamic in the prison.”

Intervention

St. Clair Correctional Facility often acts as a convex lens for the problems plaguing Alabama's prison system. Six inmates were killed in the facility between 2011 and 2014, and a riot erupted at the prison in 2015 that left a correctional officer and 15 inmates injured. An inmate stabbed a correctional officer in the prison last March.

Wynn said inmates could “sleep where you wanted to sleep” and said “police feared for their lives, feared for their safety.”

“Everybody was living in a world without police,” he said. “Imagine living in a world without police officers.”

The problems were attributed in part to a lack of working locks in the prison. ADOC is conducting a replacement of doors and locks at St. Clair that Dunn says will be complete in February. Truitt alleged that inmates at St. Clair have sabotaged some of the new locks and doors; Horton said in an email there were "no reports of significant issues" with the new locks.

The attack on the officer, combined with rising violence in the prison, led the ADOC to deploy its Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) to St. Clair; recruit volunteers from other prisons to work in the facility and hire new staff to work control cubicles. Unlike officers, those new staffers do not have Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training (APOST) certification, but their presence “allows additional bodies on the floor,” Dunn said

The department also capped the number of inmates in the facility and began transferring inmates out of St. Clair and to other close security prisons.

As a result, St. Clair finds itself an unusual situation for an Alabama state prison: It operated below its designed capacity from July through September. And those moves seem to have had an effect: Monthly assault numbers fell from a high of 33 in May to 17 in September.

Dunn, however, said the St. Clair intervention was only a temporary solution.

“This is very much robbing Peter to pay Paul,” he said. “The additional augmentation staff has to come from somewhere. That’s not a long-term strategy for success.”

Truitt said the CERT officers helped for a time.

“Inmates saw the CERT team, the riot team and thought ‘Hey, we better behave’ because they had special equipment to handle it,” he said. But he said the CERT team was most effective at night and that “most illegal acts took place during the day.”

Morrison said St. Clair is “still in an emergency situation.”

“Staff and inmates, the men there are afraid,” she said.

Construction

The department has increased its budget for recruiting and hopes a pay raise for COs will help. But Dunn and Bentley will also press forward with their prison construction proposal. Bentley said recently he may call a special session within the 2017 regular session of the Legislature, which starts in February, to address the issue.

Dunn said the proposal will resemble what the department proposed last year. It will include three 4,000-bed men’s prisons – which, he said, will contain smaller facilities holding about 500 inmates each, with all sharing services for food, clothing, laundry and medical care.

Corrections experts, noting that recent trends in prison construction emphasize smaller facilities, questioned the scale of what the department proposed last year. The plan foundered amid questions over the $800 million cost and the method of bidding proposed.

Dunn said the plan embraces a small approach in a larger context, and acknowledges the “fiscal reality” that building six separate facilities as opposed to one larger one might be more expensive.

“We’re going to be able to provide security and safety in a much better environment than we have now for staff, our correctional officers and inmates,” he said. “We’re going to be able to provide dramatically increased rehabilitation treatments, education, all those things as a department we want to do that promotes public safety, that increases inmates’ ability to be successful when they get out.”

Ward said there will be a strong push for the construction proposal, in part because of lawsuits over medical and mental health care of inmates in Alabama’s prisons.

“We’re working the votes pretty hard on it,” he said. “We’re going to pass some sort of construction bill, mainly because we’re under the gun from the federal court.”

Others are not so sure new prisons are the right answer, saying without proper leadership and a commitment to rehabilitative programming, the prisons’ problems will persist. The state built St. Clair, which opened in 1983, in response to the state’s prison crisis of the 1970s, which led to a federal takeover. Within a few years, Morrison said, “the facility was in disrepair.”

“Any prison, no matter how new it is, how sophisticated, the security mechanisms can fail,” she said. “We need real professional leadership and culture in place for any prison to operate.”

The department has not said where new prisons might go. Truitt said many officers he knew would be reluctant to travel to work at a new prison.

“The camps will be understaffed when they start, or they’re going to have non-experienced officers working them,” he said.

But Dunn says that when he presents his construction proposal to corrections officers, he gets a positive response.

“When we explain this vision to them, it’s something they can buy into and see would be very beneficial to their role as a corrections officer, to their ability to do their job, to the security, safety, the whole gambit,” he said.

The future

Everyone agrees getting more corrections officers in the prisons – wherever they may be – will require improving the working environment.

“(Corrections officers) just want safety and money,” said McGilberry. “And they’re not getting either.”

Getting overcrowding under control would be a big part of that, and Dunn said “we’re not going to stop until we get numbers to 100 percent capacity.” But, he said, even with new prisons, that would “only be a start” toward addressing the problems.

“This is a long time in coming and it’s going to take a long, concerted effort to address all the associated issues,” he said.

Truitt plans to go back to college and finish a degree in education. He said he worked with good officers in the prisons and tried to help inmates “that were trying to better their lives and get out” by assisting them with GED classes or entry into trade schools.

Increasing pay; changing leadership; limiting overtime and improving benefits, he said, would allow officers to stay on the job. But the violence and the lack of support, he said, finally became too much for him.

“It was just no longer worth it to stay there,” he said.

1 reaction Share

Merry Christmas 2016

Our nation has just finished one of the most contentious presidential elections I can remember. In many ways, the American people seem dangerously divided: hate-filled posts fill up social media, while the loudest voices dominate cable television. Active, informed debate about political issues is healthy, but it often seems our political and cultural discourse has more heat than light. However our community and nation will continue to move forward.

This Christmas season, I encourage you to take a break from politics. Put down the newspaper, turn off the cable news network, and go for a week without reading your favorite political blog. Instead, read A Christmas Carol, help out at the local food pantry, send a hand-written letter to a relative or teacher who has had a profound effect on your life, or invite someone over for dinner. Most importantly take the time to enjoy the precious time you have with those that you love. I have learned many lessons in life but one of the most important was the need to take the time to appreciate the blessings we have in life. It was a good lesson that I always try to remember through good times and bad.

As a state senator, I firmly believe in the importance of politics and political discussion, and I am deeply grateful for legacy of liberty we have under the Constitution. But as a conservative, I also know that politics should never occupy the center of our lives. The thrill or pain we get when “our team” wins or loses at the polls is fleeting. The joy we receive when we serve others in our family and our community will last a lifetime.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to you this season. 

Add your reaction Share

How has Prison Reform Impacted Alabama?

The criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number.

Crimes now equal a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium or low risk.

Alabama is a bit of a trendsetter — for better or for worse — on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission tasked with both implementing the 2013 and 2015 reforms as well as crunching the data.

“With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy. Obviously that’s not something everybody will jump on board with, but I think it’s important to make decisions, particularly ones that have huge price tags attached to them, to much more of a data driven process.”

The reforms are not without controversy. Attorneys remain critical of the sentencing guidelines, and judges are split on whether or not the score sheets rob them of their ability to adjudicate, but the reforms have shown promising returns in popping the balloon on Alabama’s prison population and the data collected over the next few years could continue to spur progressive criminal reform.

Numbers game

The two-pronged reform began with the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013 that essentially reduced sentencing decisions to a score sheet in an effort to be more selective and consistent about who gets locked away. For drug offenses, eight or more points  — perhaps a distribution of marijuana charge (6 points) and a possession with intent to distribute charge (5 points) — will land that person in prison barring mitigating factors. For property crimes, 15 points is required for a prison sentence. Both sheets also add points for prior adult convictions, incarcerations, probation revocations and juvenile delinquencies, but the idea was — and still is — to send fewer non-violent offenders to prison to relieve the burden on a prison system that, at the time the guidelines were implemented, housed nearly twice the inmate population (25,299) than it was designed for (13,318).

The guidelines also made sentencing consistent across the state. A possession of marijuana charge, for instance, no longer relies on the presiding judge’s views of the drug.

“Some judges are heavy on possession of marijuana. They detest it and (before the guidelines) would give harsher sentences than other judges would,” said former Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy who retired this past month.

The 2015 prison reform, also known as Senate Bill 67 sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, focused more on fighting the bloated prison system. A new class of felony, Class D, was created for sentencing guidelines to include non-violent offenses such as minor drug possession and third-degree theft. Those crimes now carry the lowest point totals as legislators are more concerned with locking up violent offenders.

“They’re focused on felony offenses the Alabama Legislature has deemed non-violent. Mostly drug and property offenses,” Wright said.

If fewer non-violent offenders are going to prison, more are naturally going to parole and probation. The bill accounted for that by injecting funding into the state parole system to hire 100 more parole officers.

 

Darrell Morgan, assistant executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said they have hired 71 additional parole officers as of the end of October. Seventeen more are currently being interviewed, and Morgan said more officers will be added using their general fund in an effort to reduce parole officers’ caseloads.

“When this began we were around 200 cases per officer. Our target is to have everybody down to 100 offenders per officer by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” Morgan said. “That was one of the biggest issues with previous parole boards was we didn’t have the adequate staff. Now that these numbers have increased we’re able to better manage our caseloads and we can manage more people.”

Also implemented this year was the Ohio Risk Assessment System (ORAS). The risk assessment is filled out in the pre-sentencing investigation and assigns scores based on severity of the offense, institutional behavior, and what risk-reducing programs that offender will attend. Wright said the sheet not only helps parole officers manage their caseload better, but it also will give him hard, objective data on offenders across the state.

“For the first time, we’re going to be able to say X amount of the probation population has this need or X percent of the population is at this risk level. Right now it’s just anecdotal,” Wright said. “If you talk to the district attorney and the defense lawyers, you’ll probably wonder if you’re talking about the same people. Now for the first time you’ll have an empirical objective tool that we’re going to actually measure that on. For the first time, we’ll be able to see how many people test out as high risk.”

Beyond the numbers

It’s a logical move to combat unsightly statistics by gathering new data, but local attorneys say the reforms have had an impact on how they defend or prosecute offenders who they say have been reduced to a number.

Montgomery County Deputy District Attorney Ben McGough said the sheets and implementation of Class D felonies have incentivized crime and taken the teeth out of the justice system.

“When a defendant looks at their sheet and their score is two and it takes 15 to go to prison, they’re guaranteed from the beginning. You’re not going to prison no matter what happens,” McGough said. “Then they look at the sheet and think, ‘I’ve got 13 points to burn.’ they can look at the sheet, do the math, and think, ‘I can do four more non-violent offenses before the judge even has the option to send me to prison.’ And we’re literally giving them the figures.”

On the defense side, Public Defender’s Office Director Aliya McKee said the sheets reduce her clients to a figure instead of treating each case as a unique situation.

“Our clients, from my perspective, get reduced to a number,” McKee said. “I’m somewhat comfortable with that being the starting point, but it’s not the solution. We want the court to see the person behind the charge. The name, not the case number.”

 

The guidelines do offer judges opportunities for discretion. Defense attorneys can argue mitigating factors to reduce a sentence and prosecutors can argue aggravating factors to increase it.

Some of the biggest holes in the one-size-fits-all sentencing sheet concern number of counts against a person and whether or not an offense is on the sheet.

If a person is charged with 14 counts of third degree theft and has no prior record, that’s only eight points on the sheet, a score that will not get that person to prison.

Then again, much of the point of the guidelines is keeping offenders out of the engorged prison system. Judges such as Shashy and Montgomery Circuit Judge Truman Hobbs Jr. have no problem with the guidelines, but said some judges take umbrage with the reduced sentences.

“It’s not with its detractors but on the whole it’s served its purpose,” Hobbs said. “The guidelines gave shorter sentences closer to what was served, but the reality is the prison is so overcrowded that before a five-year sentence would be reduced to three, and now it’s a three-year sentence and they’re getting out in less than a year. We’re giving shorter sentences, but they’re still getting out pretty quickly. That bothers some judges, but for the most part it's served a good purpose.”

Besides keeping offenders out of prison, the goal for most involved is to find a better way to rehabilitate the offenders. The reforms put in place foster a good environment for rehab programs, but the funding remains lacking in many areas, according to Wright and McKee.

The reforms did allow the Board of Pardons and Paroles to institute rehabilitation programs in counties lacking community corrections services, Morgan said.

“We’ve partnered with the Department of Mental Health to obtain contracts with local community service providers to do drug treatment and mental health counseling for offenders under our supervision. Right now those are the 22 counties that don’t have community corrections services,” Morgan said.

Still, Wright and others would like to see more investment in rehabilitation programs. Lowering the prison population doesn’t matter if the cause of the behavior is not being treated.

“I think one of the things the state of Alabama has always struggled with is enough investment into community alternatives. The state has always had a difficult time funding substance abuse treatment, drug treatment and more recently mental health treatment,” Wright said. “Those options have to be fully funded if we are going to divert more people from prison and jail to give them a chance to succeed in the community. The latest prison reform legislation is an effort to do that, but we need to remain vigilant in making sure these alternatives are properly funded and make sure we’re measuring results to make sure the outcomes desired are being achieved.”

Early results

As judges and attorneys feel their way through the reforms, all eyes are keen to judge what impact reforms have had on key statistics such as prison population, crime rate, parole caseload and recidivism. It’s still too soon to make definitive claims, but Wright said some early data returns are promising.

State prison population, for example, has dropped from 25,299 in 2013 (189.9 percent capacity) to 23,318 this year (175 percent).

“I think the initial results of the presumptive sentencing standards are promising,” Wright said. There has been a steady decrease in the prison population averaging 80-100 fewer inmates per month.”

State crime rate has also dropped during the period going from nearly 174,000 total crimes in 2013 (about 3,586 crimes per 100,000 people) to just over 162,000 this year, however, that rate was already falling from 191,318 in 2011 and 181,752 in 2012, according to Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Parole caseload has also begun to dip slightly. Morgan said it took longer than expected to hire new officers but active caseload is down to about 145 cases per officer. When adding inactive cases, that decline looks much smaller (about 215 per officer to about 195), but Morgan said the reform has had a noticeable impact.

“(Adding inactive cases) makes the numbers still look high, but the hiring of the officers have gotten our active caseload down to a manageable level, which is lower than it was. But we still have to hire more people,” Morgan said.

The risk assessment and recidivism data will take longer to gather with Wright saying, “a lot of the big data prizes won’t be coming in for four to five to six years,” but some usable risk assessment results will become available in the next 12 to 18 months.

On a local level, one particular statistic has the District Attorney’s Office concerned that the guidelines may be doing more harm than good for public safety.

Montgomery has seen 530 more thefts this year than last year, and many in the DA’s office, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Lloria James, see the lenient sentencing guidelines as the blame.

“Those statistics don’t surprise us at all. It’s almost like a revolving door,” James said. “The problem is sort of like word travels fast on a college campus or neighborhood or things like that, in the criminal community word travels fast, and I think it’s gotten out there that pretty much if it’s non-violent — thefts, burglaries things like that — there’s almost zero chance you’re going to see some prison time, so it’s worth it to them.”

Whether or not there is a connection remains up for debate, but that hasn’t stopped District Attorney Daryl Bailey from reaching out to Sen. Ward in recent weeks about possibly making some changes.

“We’ll continue looking at it, but we’ve done a lot of reform already,” Ward said. “Obviously that’s a point being made by the district attorneys, but if there's any changes needed to be made in the guidelines we need to do that. We need to make sure it's prudent for the safety of the public.”

The full impact of the prison reform remains unclear, and whether or not there is a next phase that supports post-sentencing rehabilitation remains to be seen.

The reforms have shown themselves not to be perfect, but Wright said that should engender further study and support in his ideal scenario.

The reforms were put in place after studying prison reform in other Republican states such as Texas and North Carolina, but implementing front-to-back change is “trendsetting,” Wright said.

For now, the state must wait and see what the numbers hold.

“It’s a little daunting, but that’s trendsetting to have this big of a process going on at one time,” Wright said. “That’s also why I tell people both for it and against it to take a deep breath and let’s do our best to implement it. I think with a lot of things, people get in the way of things before they implement it. We owe it to ourselves to embrace what the Legislature passed and what the intent was. Let’s give it our best good faith effort, wait a while and then sit around the table and talk about it then.”

Add your reaction Share

How Sessions as Attorney General Would Oversee Alabama Prison Probe

By John Sharp, AL.COM

If U.S. Sen. Jeff Sessions is confirmed as the nation's next Attorney General, he will oversee an ongoing federal probe into the dangerous, overcrowded conditions of the prisons in his home state.

But how Sessions might handle the Department of Justice's investigation into the men's prisons in Alabama is up for speculation. Experts are split on whether the conservative Sessions will get involved in the case, if he'll take a hands-off approach or if he will establish policy that might be lenient on enforcing change.

Sessions has granted few, if any, interviews since he was chosen by President-elect Donald Trump as the next Attorney General. A spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

"I won't say there will be a push back (on the state prison probe), but I would assume it would be (handled) different in terms of how they approach it with the new administration," said Doug Jones, a former U.S. Attorney for the Northern District who served from 1997 to 2001. "At this point, you just don't know what the new administration's view of this would be. It is just going to be a different world."

Said John Carroll, professor of law at the Cumberland School of Law at Samford University in Birmingham: "The Attorney General sets high level policy. It would be rare for him to go down to the level of these investigations."

'Constitutional violations'

Alabama prisons are the most overcrowded in the nation. They are also understaffed. State task forces and legislative proposals in recent years have tackled the problem, but relief has been slow to come.

Instead, the federal government, which once forced California to release prisoners, this year launched a formal investigation into the basic conditions.

The Obama Administration's DOJ announced the investigation in October, amid repeated claims about inadequate protections of prisoners who face physical and sexual harm.

The notoriously overcrowded prisons are more than 160 percent beyond capacity, and state lawmakers are likely to prioritize plans next year to address the situation, while a federal lawsuit over medical and mental health issues for inmates progresses.

The system is plagued with violence against employees and inmates, with alarming situations at Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore: A warden and officer were stabbed during a riot in March, and a corrections officer died after being stabbed by an inmate in September.

 

Alabama prisons crumbling under dangerous conditions

Alabama prisons crumbling under dangerous conditions

The recent murder of a Holman correctional officer underlines the dangerous conditions that exist within an Alabama state prison system that has suffered from chronic overcrowding and understaffing in recent years.

 

The DOJ's investigation is being handled under the Civil Rights of Institutionalize Persons Act (CRIPA), which gives the department the authority to investigate violations of prisoners' constitutional rights.

Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, is heading up the probe.

But once Trump is inaugurated on Jan. 20, and if Sessions' appointment as Attorney General is confirmed early next year, a new slate of personnel will come on board. Sessions will have the authority to oversee the DOJ's Civil Rights' division, and will be charged with setting administrative policy.

Sessions is expected to join Trump for a rare joint public appearance together during a rally Saturday at Ladd-Peebles Stadium in Mobile.

But even critics of Sessions' appointment to the AG's post say it's unlikely he would become overly involved in an investigation.

Richard Cohen, president of the Southern Poverty Law Center - who has expressed reservations about how a Sessions Justice Department will enforce civil rights laws nationwide - said he doesn't anticipate the Alabama senator getting overly involved with the prison situation.

"When it comes to this situation in Alabama, everyone knows that the prison system is in crisis," said Cohen. "Everyone knows it has a mammoth problem of rampant violence and problems of failure to provide adequate health care. It's a clear case of constitutional violations that no Attorney General, no matter where they might be on the political spectrum, will feel any differently on with this case."

Said Carroll, "It's universally held even among the most conservative politicians in the state that the prison system has serious issues with it and that it has to be remedied."

Sessions' approach

What will be interesting to watch, according to Jones and others, is how the DOJ under Sessions' watch will handle other criminal justice-related matters that could affect Alabama's overcrowded prisons.

Jones said he believes that Sessions, who has had past hardline approaches toward incarcerating criminals - and who once supported legislation that would integrate juvenile prisoners into adult corrections facilities - will likely be "very deferential to the states" on how they handle similar matters.

"I don't think he would be the kind of Attorney General to push for interventions if he can see a way around it," said Jones.

Stephen Rushin, assistant professor of law at the University of Alabama's School of Law, said he believes a Sessions-led DOJ will be similar to those under President George W. Bush's administration. In other words, Rushing said, an investigation into Alabama's prison won't be altered but the recommendations following it will differ than what could have occurred under a Democratic administration.

"Instead of pursuing a consent decree or a court order to force a city or state to effect a change, during the Bush Administration, they provided voluntary assistance of convincing municipalities (and other government agencies) to make changes rather than forcing their hand," Rushin said, noting that Democrat-led DOJ's are more likely to "zealously pursue" federal sanctions on matters of police shooting investigations and prison reform.

Rushin also said a key issue to watch is how advanced the investigation has become.

"There are time considerations here," he said. "It takes time for an Attorney General, a prominent level Cabinet position, to be confirmed by the Senate."

Federal lawsuit

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster - and a leading advocate for prison reform in the state - said the DOJ probe will advance "regardless of whether Sessions is appointed or not."

"As a state, we've done a pretty good job working with the DOJ in the past," said Ward, adding that Alabama lawmakers are not surprised with the federal investigation that was initiated with assistance from U.S. Attorney's Offices for the Northern, Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama.

But Ward said the worry for state lawmakers is over a 2014 lawsuit filed by the SPLC before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson.

The case focuses on a different aspect of the prison system: Mental health, medical care for inmates and discrimination against inmates with disabilities.

The state agreed to settle most of the disability claims under a plan that will require improvements in accommodations for prisoners with physical disabilities. A jury trial is underway on the mental health aspects of the case. 

"That's where Alabama's real danger is, in my opinion," Ward said.

Richard Fording, a political science professor at the University of Alabama, said the most effective way for the federal government to force change with Alabama's prisons is through lawsuits filed in the federal court system.

He noted that in California, federal courts - with the backing of the U.S. Supreme Court - pushed for the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation to reduce its prison population to 137.5 percent of design capacity. In 2015, for the first time in years, the overcrowded prisons were able to meet that threshold.

"Federal action generally results from successful lawsuits filed in federal court, based on guarantees offered by the 8th Amendment to the Constitution," Fording said. "Many of the important decisions regarding California's prison system - especially health care - were made by federal judges or other designated federal officials."

Speculation premature  

Meanwhile, Bentley's proposed $800 million borrowing plan to build three new mega-prisons for men and one for women is on hold. The proposal would call for closing many of the existing 15 state prisons in Alabama.

Bentley had considered calling state lawmakers back to Montgomery for a special session to address the matter. But there is no indication that the governor's office will move forward with that ahead of the Legislature's regular session that will begin in January.

Yasamie August, spokeswoman for Bentley, said it was "premature to speculate" on what "may or may not happen" with the federal investigation pending Sessions' confirmation. She said the governor's office "welcomes" the investigation.

Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn did not add anything further to his initial comments about the DOJ probe. He said the department is cooperating fully with federal investigators, and that the state plans to "dedicate the necessary time and resources to enable the investigators to complete their work."

He added, "We have been working to provide solutions to the problems faced by the department and will work with the DOJ on recommendations to improve conditions in the Alabama Department of Corrections."

Add your reaction Share

Alabama Prison System Goes on Trial

A lawsuit on behalf of Alabama's prisoners, claiming they're being denied mental health care, begins in federal court Monday. The class-action suit states that Alabama doesn't provide adequate mental health treatment for those behind bars.

Lawyers for the prisoners argue that the state provides little other than medication, and sometimes inmates are forced to take it against their will. The plaintiffs allege prison conditions are dangerous and discriminatory, which amounts to cruel and unusual punishment, a violation of the Eighth Amendment.

The conditions in the prisons are inhumane, according to attorney Maria Morris with the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery-based group that represents some of the plaintiffs.

"There's just nothing that comports with anything like what we as a civilized people in the 21st century would expect to see as far as the way we're treating people," Morris says.

For instance, she says, one severely mentally ill plaintiff is housed in a suicide-watch cell.

"He is spending 23 hours a day or more locked up in a cell, getting no counseling," says Morris. "That's their highest level of care that they can give him."

The lawsuit is on behalf of Alabama's male prison population. Two years ago, the state agreed to improve conditions in women's prisons after a federal investigation found nearly two decades of systematic abuses, including male officers forcing women to have sex.

The trial that starts Monday is part of a larger lawsuit that also accuses the state of denying male inmates basic medical care. That issue will come to court early next year.

The root problem, Morris says, is that Alabama can't afford to provide adequate services for the number of prisoners it incarcerates.

Alabama's prisons are some of the most crowded in the country. At times, the lockups are at nearly double capacity, with staffing levels that are half what they should be, according to Alabama's Department of Corrections. For example, the state has 21 doctors for about 23,300 prisoners.

Add your reaction Share

← Previous  1  2    5  6  7  8  9  10  11  12  13    22  23  Next →