Southern Conservatives Leading the Way in Reducing Prison Overcrowding

What once was a dining hall at St. Clair Correctional Facility now houses 58 inmates with medical problems.

They sleep on rows of bunk beds a couple of feet apart, the room converted years ago to accommodate exploding prison populations.

Alabama’s prisons house nearly double the inmates they were designed for, according to U.S. Department of Justice data, making them the most overcrowded in the country.

And the state at the heart of the conservative Deep South is now seeking to tackle the problem with a bill to overhaul its justice system, following in the footsteps of neighbors such as Georgia.

In a reversal from the past, these changes have been driven by conservatives facing the fiscal realities of a swollen prison system and research showing the ineffectiveness of the status quo.

“We have been so ingrained into the ‘lock ‘em up and throw away the key’ ” thinking, said Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee. “That sounds good, but as a conservative I want to say, ‘Is that the best use of our tax dollars?’ ”

Ward piloted a bill through the Senate on a 31-2 vote that would, among other things, reduce sentences and make parole easier to come by for nonviolent offenders. Ward managed to placate all manner of interest groups along the way.

“He’s a magician,” said Janette Grantham, the state director of the influential advocacy group Victims of Crime and Leniency.

Tide swells across the South

But the political tide has been turning in the direction of change for a decade. From Texas to North Carolina to Georgia to — particularly galling for Alabamians — Mississippi, Southern states have taken turns revamping their policies.

“The South and Southeast in particular have been really at the forefront of criminal justice reform the past few years,” said Cara Sullivan, the director of the Justice Performance Project at the conservative American Legislative Exchange Council.

It began in Texas, where then-Gov. Rick Perry signed a law in 2007 to spend $241 million on treatment and diversion programs rather than new prison beds. The next year ALEC, a group that designs model conservative legislation for states across the country, launched a working group on criminal justice featuring the key legislator behind Texas’ move.

“The fact that Texas did it first provides a little bit of political cover to other states to do it,” Sullivan said.

Liberal groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union had new allies in long-running fights against overincarceration.

Lauren-Brooke Eisen of the liberal Brennan Center for Justice said lawmakers want effective programs, and they took to heart research showing treatment for addiction or mental health problems and re-entry programs are more effective than long prison sentences in fighting recidivism.

“But we can’t ignore the influence of fiscal conservatives in this movement,” she said.

“Politicians no longer have to be scared to say they are smart on crime,” Eisen said. “Tough-on-crime rhetoric is not really rhetoric we’re seeing too much today.”

That was not the case in the late 1980s and 1990s, when the seeds were sown for much of the overcrowding seen today. Responding to increased crime rates and the national “War on Drugs,” state leaders in both parties passed mandatory minimums and “truth in sentencing” laws requiring inmates to serve most of their sentences before being eligible for parole. “Three strikes” laws imposed life sentences for multiple offenders and had backing from Bill Clinton’s White House.

The issue was a political cudgel, used most famously in the 1988 presidential campaign against Democrat Michael Dukakis by tying him to the case of a Massachusetts felon named Willie Horton who raped a woman after escaping during a weekend prison furlough.

But in the past decade, the pendulum swung back. Years of efforts in Texas — and vetoes by Perry — resulted in the 2007 law.

In 2011 North Carolina tackled its system with an overhaul along similar lines: more and better substance abuse and mental health treatment, guaranteed supervision for all felons after release from prison, and swift, short jail stays for probation violators, among other changes.

Three years later, the state’s prison population had fallen by 3,400, the state had closed 10 prisons and the crime rate had dropped by 11 percent.

In 2012 it was Georgia’s turn.

Gov. Nathan Deal pushed changes that allowed Georgia to divert more nonviolent offenders toward alternative programs and away from expensive prison beds. A second phase involved a plan to keep young offenders out of juvenile lockups if they’ve been convicted of drug crimes and other nonviolent offenses.

The third part, which Deal launched last year, focuses on improving ways to rehabilitate inmates who are serving prison sentences and ease their transition as they re-enter society. He’s poured millions more into education programs at state prisons.

Maneuvering in Alabama

Alabama has had a slow build to its big legislative moment. The state’s prison system has been the subject of numerous lawsuits and a newspaper investigation documenting its ills.

The Legislature voted last year to create a task force to come up with recommendations. The task force delved into the issue with guidance from the Council of State Governments, which has advised several states on criminal justice. In January the group approved 12 pages of recommendations.

Ward molded them into a bill that cleared the Senate this month.

Many of the changes resemble those of Alabama’s neighbors, but the biggest single influence has been California — as a cautionary tale.

In 2009 a federal three-judge panel ordered California to slash its prison system by 40,000 inmates, a directive the state continues to struggle under.

Ward, the state senator leading the charge to overhaul Alabama’s criminal justice system, said the most frequent question he hears is: “Is this going to make sure that we don’t have a federal court intervene on what we’re doing?”

“That question by itself is good because that tells you people are worried about it,” Ward said. He added with a chuckle, referencing Alabama’s same-sex marriage controversy: “We are a state that traditionally says, ‘I don’t care what a federal court says.’ ”

California is required to reduce its population to 137.5 percent of its prisons’ designed capacity. Alabama would only get down to 162 percent of capacity by 2021 under its task force recommendations, according to the Council of State Governments.

Shay Farley, the legal director for the left-leaning Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, who served on the task force, said the bill could have a much bigger bang by making its sentence reductions apply retroactively, capturing people who are in prison now. Still, she said, the version that cleared the Senate and awaits changes in the House “makes great strides in the right direction.”

A further complication lies in the funding. While Ward’s bill would bring down costs in the long run to house prisoners, it would require immediate funds to hire more parole officers and other changes. The Legislature is still working through a general fund budget amid a heated debate about whether to increase taxes.

Inmates in the St. Clair prison and its new warden, DeWayne Estes, are keeping an eye on their Legislature.

“Either we need more funding if everyone continues to lock up at the same rate, or they’re going to have to do something with the number of people they send to prison,” Estes said in his ninth day on the job, his office still stacked with boxes. “It’s a simple numbers game.”

Estes presented his numbers matter-of-factly. He’s over design capacity, but not as badly as some other prisons in the system. It puts an extra strain on the kitchen and laundry facilities, but it’s not overwhelming. He has 103 fewer correction officers than he needs because he has trouble hiring and retaining qualified officers.

As Estes walked into the prison one recent morning, an old man hobbled on a cane in the other direction, about to be released back into the world. Estes shook the man’s hand and wished him well.

Told by a visitor that his burden had been lightened by one that day, Estes shook his head.

“We’ll get another one in the next door.”

Staff writer Greg Bluestein contributed to this article.

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