Prison Reform: Cautious optimism from lawmakers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘We have to start this year’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Corrections costs continue to grow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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