Prison Reform Must Be Included in Alabama Budget

Guest opinion By Guest opinion 
on August 18, 2015 at 1:37 PM

By Newt Gingrich and Pat Nolan -- Gingrich is a former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, and Nolan is the Director of the Center for Criminal Justice Reform at the American Conservative Union Foundation.

Three months ago, Alabama legislators set aside their partisan differences and passed landmark reform of the state's beleaguered criminal justice system (SB 67). This historic action drew national praise, highlighting Alabama as a state willing to tackle tough challenges with substantial reforms. 

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) put it well: "This is not about being Democrats; this is not about being Republicans. This is about being responsible for a problem our state faces." 

Conservative leaders around the country, including the members of the national Right on Crime movement, are impressed with Alabama's leadership. The Heritage Foundation summed up the situation: "Alabama is reforming its criminal justice system because a complex web of interconnected problems left it near implosion—a mess of spent money, wasted lives and broken families." 

However, we are concerned that the state's important reforms—along with the economic and public-safety benefits they will deliver for Alabamians—might never be implemented because they must be funded in the budget that will be debated in the upcoming special legislative session. 

And without the reforms, Alabama's prison system will continue to be dysfunctional and to put the public at risk.  

Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the nation, operating at 195 percent of capacity. The overcrowding is even worse than in California, where the federal courts took control of the prison system. 

"We don't want the federal government ruling our prison system, and we are dangerously close to becoming another California," says Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who sponsored the reform legislation. Conservatives are doing all they can to head off a federal takeover of Alabama's prisons, and the SB 67 reforms are key to keeping the federal government out of the state's operations. 

To avoid a federal takeover, the legislature established the Prison Reform Task Force that included state legislators, leaders in the criminal justice system, local and state judges, district attorneys, victims' rights groups and others to develop a new plan to reduce recidivism and maximize prison space for the most violent and dangerous offenders. 

The picture that emerged revealed problems extending far beyond an ailing prison system operating at nearly twice its designed capacity. The task force also found that offenders under supervision in the community—many of whom were considered a high risk to commit new crimes—were not receiving the oversight and treatment necessary to minimize recidivism. Why? Because individual probation and parole officers are struggling with huge caseloads averaging 200 offenders, an impossible load. 

In another disturbing finding, the task force learned that large numbers of people released from Alabama prisons were typically sent home with no follow-up supervision, despite research showing the importance of community oversight in the weeks and months just following incarceration. That's a clear threat to public safety. 

Based on their analysis, task force members developed a comprehensive set of proposals designed to reduce prison overcrowding and strengthen community-based supervision. The resulting bill, SB 67, relieves overcrowding by reserving costly prison beds for dangerous and repeat offenders, while holding low level offenders accountable in the community under supervision and drug tests where appropriate.  

The bill adds 100 additional parole officers to properly supervise those who are released. The bill also substantially increases funding for mental health treatment and substance abuse programs that have proven to be effective. 

The bill will was passed with overwhelming support by the legislature and signed by Governor Bentley in May. Projections show it will help the state avoid $380 million in prison construction and operations costs by FY2021. 

As we all know, such moments of unity are rare in politics. Let's make sure the dividends from this one aren't lost at the 11th hour. We must protect our conservative values—the ones that make us tough on crime, fiscally responsible and dedicated to preserving state autonomy. The legislature should ensure that any approved budget includes funding to support the reforms in SB 67. 

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