Ward Testifies Before Congress on Prison Reform

Overcrowding in state and federal prisons attracted bipartisan concern Tuesday at a House hearing where an Alabama state legislator said solutions will require political courage from both sides of the aisle.

“Rarely have I seen an issue that generates more bipartisan support than this particular issue does,” said state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster.

The federal prison system is 36 percent over capacity, prompting Congress to consider ways to slow the growth without jeopardizing public safety.

The House Judiciary subcommittee on crime, chaired by Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Wis., asked several witnesses, including Ward, how states handle their own overcrowding issues.

Ward, chairman of the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said a series of reforms — but no single solution — can reduce the number of people sentenced to incarceration and the number who commit new crimes after finishing their prison terms.

Ward suggested gathering better data on which offenders might qualify for alternatives to prison, increasing the number of community-based corrections programs and courts specializing in substance abuse and mental health issues, sentencing guidelines that give judges more flexibility, more education programs for prisoners, and eliminating laws that mandate long sentences for multiple minor offenses.

Alabama’s state prisons are operating at 192 percent of capacity, and it would take $600 million in new construction to drop that to 137 percent, Ward said. He called that option fiscally and morally unacceptable.

“Money is not going to be the solution,” Ward said.

Republicans and Democrats on the subcommittee embraced many of the same ideas. Some already are sponsoring congressional legislation on the issue.

“I’m beginning to feel like more Republicans like Sen. Ward are thinking about this and it’s a wonderful thing,” said Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., ranking member of the House Judiciary Committee.

Sensenbrenner said the federal prison system has more than 216,000 inmates, and overcrowding is even worse at medium- and high-security facilities for men. In 2000, there were 4.1 inmates for every prison staffer, but that grew to 4.8 last year.

“The overcrowding leads to inmate misconduct and creates safety issues for both inmates and corrections officers,” Sensenbrenner said.

Ward said many of the proposed reforms are unpopular with conservatives who fear they’ll be viewed as soft on crime, but the changes would save money and improve public safety in the long run. Without changes, Ward added, Alabama risks a federal takeover of its prison system, which should be of special concern to conservatives.

“How can we dare defend our rights … and then turn over our corrections system to the federal courts?” Ward said after the hearing.

Ward, who also met with members of the Alabama congressional delegation about the overcrowding issue, was invited to testify by Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills.

“There is a need for sensible reform in both our state and federal systems,” Bachus said.

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