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Prison Reform Options Released

More parole officers, a new classification of low-level felonies and more supervision of inmates after release are three of more than a dozen recommendations issued today by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force.

The group met in Columbiana and released a list of proposals aimed at reducing prison crowding while making better use of public safety dollars.

The proposals would reduce the state's prison population by about 4,500 inmates over the next six years, according to projections by researchers with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is helping the task force.

The prison population would drop from about 26,000, 195 percent of what the prisons are designed to hold, to about 21,500, 162 percent of capacity, CSG's projection showed.

It would cost the state about $25 million a year to implement the proposals, a total of $151.5 million through fiscal year 2021.

CSG's research showed that the proposals, intended to reduce recidivism and preserve prison space for the most dangerous, would be much cheaper than adding prison beds to achieve the same 162 percent of capacity.

CSG projected that would cost $407.5 million over six years, including additional operational costs.

The task force was appointed as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Alabama, an effort that involves all three branches of state government.

State leaders launched the initiative last year in response to mounting problems in the prison system and with conditions that some believe put the state at risk of intervention by the federal government.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the task force, said he expected to roll the proposals into a single bill for the legislative session that begins March 3.

Besides the task force proposals, Ward said Alabama must invest some money into construction to add more prison capacity.

There are about 30 people on the task force, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims' advocates and others.

Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell, a task force member, said he was glad to hear the acknowledgment that more prison beds are needed.

He said that has to be a part of any viable long-term plan.

The recommendations released today fell into three categories: reducing recidivism, prioritizing prison space for violent offenders and holding offenders accountable in prison and after release.

Under the reducing recidivism category, the task force recommended hiring 101 additional probation and parole officers and 22 specialists.

Alabama's probation and parole officers carry average caseloads of about 200. Smaller caseloads would let them focus attention on those more likely to re-offend, the recommendations say.

The plan calls for increased funding for substance abuse and cognitive behavioral programs for felons on probation and parole to help keep those offenders from returning to incarceration. It calls for evaluations of those programs and the outcomes to make sure the dollars are well spent.

CSG research showed that inmates who complete their sentences and leave prison with no supervision are more likely to re-offend and return than those released on parole.

To address that, the recommendations call for mandated periods of supervised release. For example, an inmate with a five-year sentence would be on parole for the final three months of that sentence.

One proposal would create a new class of felony for the least serious, nonviolent offenses. They would be called Class D felonies and would include simple drug possession, forgery and fraudulent use of a credit card, low-level thefts and the least serious burglaries.

Part of the intent would be to divert more of those offenders from prison to save space for more serious offenders.

Ward said that might be the toughest part of the bill to pass. But he said it was important.

"It moves the needle more than any other part of the proposal," he said.

CSG researcher Andy Barbee said 72 percent of Alabama inmates are serving time for a violent offense. Burglaries are classified as violent.

Under the Class D felony proposal, burglaries of uninhabited, non-domicile buildings where no victims are encountered would be considered nonviolent.

Thefts of property valued between $500 and $1,499 would also be a Class D felony.

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 26, when it is expected to take a formal vote on policy recommendations.

It plans to release a final report with a summary of findings the first week of March.

The CSG's Barbee said that the recommendations aren't intended as a final solution to prison crowding and other problems. He said there is no such remedy and that all states have to constantly monitor and change policies.

"That's the nature of criminal justice," Barbee said.

Ward said he did not expect unanimity on a final plan, but was hopeful that task force members would support 80 percent of it.

He said solutions to the state's prison problems won't come quickly.

"This is a long-term process," Ward said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

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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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Now is the time for comprehensive reform of Alabama's criminal justice system

As Alabamians, it is our responsibility to confront and address problems that plague our state and limit our ability to grow and progress economically and otherwise. To do that, we must look at those problems squarely and be honest with ourselves about where our current and past practices have left us.

The state of overcrowding in our prisons and jails, and the operation of the criminal justice system that feeds them, has finally gripped the attention of people across our state. However, while public discourse is good, the ongoing discussions have magnified the flaws in our current system and revealed a dire need for reform. Raw data and unbiased research indisputably shows that the structure of our criminal justice system has, in fact, severely compromised our fight on crime at a fundamental level.

AL.COM OPINION

  • About the writer
    Republican Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate.

We have learned, with expert assistance and analysis by the Council of State Governments (CSG) Justice Center, that our system lets more than a third of all individuals finish their prison sentences and reenter society without any kind of supervision. That includes large numbers of short-term inmates who are sentenced for drug or property crimes and more likely to reoffend.

Those serving long-term sentences are serving longer and longer under the guise of a harsh punishment, due to mandatory minimum sentencing guidelines. However, the truth is that we are merely prolonging their inevitable return to society while failing altogether to take steps to decrease their threat to society upon reentry. In fact, statistics show that sentences without supervised release very often result in an increased risk of reoffending.

Our correctional system is unsustainably crowded, and currently holds twice as many people as it is built to house.

Between 2003 and 2013, the population in state-run prisons alone climbed 9 percent. When alternative placements like community corrections are taken into account, the population increase is even higher at 19 percent over that same time span. Corrections spending also increased 49 percent during this ten-year period, from $309 million to $460 million. The numbers in the last decade show how unaffordable that growth has become.

That growing cost may seem overwhelming, but if we fail to tackle the challenge the cost will grow dramatically. Further, the price of 12,000 new prison beds -- enough to bring our system into line with current demands on beds -- would cost $840 million to construct, and would cost $186 million annually just to operate.

Opting to buy our state out of overcrowding, however, would only be a band-aid solution to a much deeper issue, and failure to address the root of the problem will only increase future costs.

All of these factors combine to make restructuring essential in our system, to place equal emphasis on reentry and supervision that we place on prison. There are many upsides to tackling this situation now. When Alabama balances the need for sentences to include stays of confinement as well as mandatory supervision, we can manage the demand for beds and better plan the use of our own resources. Additionally, we can fill in gaps in the supervised treatment network and begin to reverse the declining parole release rate.

These facts present a blunt reality and, now that it has caught our attention, I cannot overstate the urgency of achieving comprehensive reform for Alabama's criminal justice system.

We must move forward with the ultimate objective to develop concrete, effective change that will preserve public safety and support law enforcement operations in our state. This important effort demands two things: collaboration and thoughtful attention. There is no place for political rhetoric in these discussions and in this work. It is imperative that we remain committed to finding a resolution that will balance efficient use of our current resources with change that will necessarily allow for effective operations, all the while preserving the safety of Alabama citizens now and in the future. 

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Alabama's Prison System Has Failed

  I have come to believe that it is not just prisoners that aren't being paroled that are causing the prisons to be overcrowded. It is also the errors the Judges, Prosecutors, and Disctrict Attorneys make.  A lot of inmates are imprisoned unlawfully.  Some judges abuse their power.  The DA and Prosecutors are willing to convict men and women to receive a promotion.  Is it a coincidence that they were both promoted after the convictions that were given to my husband and his co-defenders?

 Myself and my husband have spent thousands of dollars fighting Alabama's system.  A federal wiretap was used by the state 6 months later to search our home, which by law is considered "stale facts".  Those wiretaps were sealed by a federal judge and should not have been used to prosecute in a state court. These are the types of errors that exist and take our loved ones away from us. Everyone has a job to do but those jobs consist of proper procedures and abiding by the laws set forth.  

  My husband is sitting in prison today with a 20 split 5 sentence for prescribed cough medicine from his physician and a trafficking charge in which there was no evidence nor apprehension of him conducting such charge.  He is a first time, nonviolent offender, with no prior felonies.  Once incarcerated he was classified based on a co-defendants PSI report. How is that legal?  No one will listen and make the necessary changes.  We have filed appeal after appeal but the sentencing judge will not grant anything.  

  We will keep fighting until we get to the Federal Courts where they abide by the United States Constitution.  It does not all fall on the law makers.  Until the Judges, DA, and Prosecutors make the punishment fit the crime, the prisons will continue to be overcrowded.  I believe some felonies that are nonviolent should be reduced to a misdemeanor and a drug class, probation or house arrest should be implemented to avoid sending someone else to prison. There's alot of work to do but with the right politicians in place it can be done.

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Prison Reform Task Force to Present Proposals in February

MONTGOMERY — The head of a prison task force said sentencing changes, increased resources for parole and alternative sentences and construction projects to take the immediate pressure off overcrowded prisons will likely be among the items the group recommends to lawmakers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the lawmaker who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said he wants members to look at a "buffet" of proposals in January and hopefully have a bill ready in February. The group has been meeting since June to consider ways to overhaul the state prison system, so overcrowded that state politicians say they fear federal intervention.

Alabama prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates the facilities were originally designed to house. Alabama in 2013 also had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.

"Politicians created this problem. Through the years we've had politicians running on 'Lock them up and throw away the key.' They ran on that platform, but they didn't have a means to fund the high rate of incarceration," said task force member Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

Alabama deals with low-level property crimes more severely than other states, according to a study presented to the task force by the Council of State Governments.

Stealing something valued at $500 is felony theft in Alabama. Thirty-four states have higher monetary thresholds for theft to be considered a felony, according to the group. Alabama also considers burglary, no matter how small or the circumstances, to be a violent crime. Other states do not.

"We haven't changed those thresholds in years. We have the lowest thresholds in the South," Ward said.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said he believes the state needs additional changes to the Habitual Felony Offender Act, a decades-old law that for years handed down decades-long sentences.

"In my opinion, and I'm the chief justice, I think the judicial system is failing us," Moore said.

"We've got people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim, they've never confronted a person. That's unreasonable," Moore said in an interview.

Alabama lawmakers approved the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977 in an effort to crack down on career criminals. It mandates enhanced sentences for repeat offenders and mandatory sentence minimums. For example, a person convicted of a Class A felony — such as first-degree robbery, trafficking, rape, murder — is sentenced to life, either with or without the possibility of parole, if they have three prior convictions for lesser felonies. Lawmakers have softened the law through the years and since 2006 have allowed judges to set the lengthy mandatory sentences aside in some cases in favor of new sentence guidelines.

The chief justice said he believes there are still problems. Moore in September wrote a dissent in a case, in which a man caught trying to steal a nail gun from a Lowe's by stuffing it down his pants, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

The man, who had three previous felony convictions, was convicted of first-degree robbery, a Class A felony, after telling the store staff that confronted him that he had a gun while sticking his hand in his pocket. Moore said the man, who was not armed with a firearm and told police he was referencing the nail gun, should not have been convicted of armed robbery because he was not armed.

Ward said a major thrust for the task force will be to seek changes to probation and parole procedures.

Forty percent of prison admissions are for violation of probation and parole, according to the study presented to the task force. Officers with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles carry average caseloads of about 200 each.

"Somewhere in this process there is going to have to be some more money for supervised parole. Right now we just don't have the manpower to conduct the kind of supervision that these inmates need," Ward said.

Ward said the state needs to do something to increase immediate prison capacity to take the immediate pressure off of the system. That too, Ward said, will also take additional money from the state.

Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said if lawmakers just pass legislation without funding, "those reform efforts are never going to reach their potential."

 
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Lawmakers Must Focus on Growing Meth Problem

The Associated Press recently highlighted an unmistakable new trend in drug enforcement: a dramatic decline in domestic methamphetamine laboratories fueled in part by an influx of Mexican-made meth across the country. 

According to the article, because Mexican-made meth is purer, cheaper and sadly easier to get these days, fewer criminals are making homegrown meth, which can lead to home fires and even explosions. In other words, this story comes with equal parts good news and bad news. 

But before we get too upset about these developments, it's critical to point out that our law enforcement community has taken a number of significant steps to crack down on meth criminals. For instance, our police force use real-time tracking of pseudoephedrine purchases, while our pharmacists use a system--called a meth offender block list--that prohibits meth offenders from buying those cold and allergy products.  Surely these efforts, which have demonstrated clear results in recent years, are also helping lead to a reduction in homegrown meth labs. 

Going forward, as lawmakers consider ways to step up the battle against meth, they should focus on the real sources of the problem: Mexican meth and addiction.  

Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican, represents District 14 in the Alabama Senate.

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Legislators Could See Prison Bill by January

Expanded use of house arrest? Driver's licenses for ex-cons? More resources for overworked parole officers?

All are among the reform measures that an Alabama prison task force is considering for a bill that could be drafted by next month. State Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said the committee likely will produce a single piece of legislation rather than a package of bills.

He said whatever the Legislature adopts next year almost certainly will not be the last word on corrections.

"The solution to this probably is going to be five or six things. It's not going to be one thing," said Ward, who added that he hopes to have a draft bill around the time of Gov. Robert Bentley's second inauguration. "I think we're looking at three or four years of continuous reform."

The reform panel has been working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to study how Alabama's prison population grew to nearly twice its designed capacity. The contents of the forthcoming bill are still to be determined, Ward said, but he added that it probably will address the state's underfunded parole system and look for inexpensive ways to reduce the number of ex-cons who return to prison.

Bentley largely has left the task force to develop its own solutions, although he did say earlier this year that the state would have to build another prison. The governor's spokeswoman, Jennifer Ardis, said she could not address the prison-construction issue specifically. She said Bentley is eager to review the recommendations of the state's prison task and the Council of State Governments Justice Center.

"Obviously, prison overcrowding is a significant issue," she said. "But in order to have a meaningful impact, you've got to reform the whole system."

Ward acknowledged any effort to reduce the average caseload for parole and probation officers would be expensive. One of the Justice Center's recommendations is to hire more parole officers.

Ward said the task force would look to the budget committee chairmen in the House and Senate for suggestions on how to pay for those reforms. But he also conceded that finding extra money will be difficult in a year where legislators are going to have to find an additional $250 million or more in new revenue or reduced spending just to balance the budget.

"I don't think we have an answer on it yet," he said.

State Sen. Vivian David Figures, a Mobile Democrat who serves on the task force, said dealing with the consequences of incarceration or waiting for federal intervention will be costlier.

"If we don't do something, the federal government is going to come in and do something," she said. "The bottom line is, they're going to have to come up with money on the front end or the back end."

Ward said some reforms would cost very little. He said the legislation could seek ways to make it easier to get driver's licenses after leaving prison. Lacking a driver's license - a necessity for getting a job, among other things - poses an obstacle to former prisoners in succeeding in the outside world.

"That's something simple. It doesn't cost a whole lot," Ward said.

Also under consideration, Ward said, is purchasing more GPS devices to monitor people on home detention. Having that extra security measure could allow the state to divert more borderline defendants from prison, which is far more expensive.

Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said he hopes the Legislature provides more resources for community-based substance abuse treatment and other programs that people need to succeed on parole or probation.

"We have to do a better job once the prisoner is released, regardless of whether it's six months or three years," he said.

Figures, one of two black people on the 25-member prison panel, said house arrest is an option for some but not all people who get into trouble with the law. She suggested that is a fact that is lost on many of the panelists.

"You have to consider how many of them have a home to go to," she said. "This is one of the reasons I pushed for more diversity on this task force."

Figures said she hopes the bill that goes to the Legislature includes prevention measures and help for ex-cons getting jobs.

'I am open to looking at all possibilities. I do think it is going to have to be a combination of things," she said. "It is going to take some time to pull these measures into place."

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Ward Selected as Chairman for NCSL Committee on Natural Resources and Infrastructure

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, has been named chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures’ standing committee on Natural Resources and Infrastructure.

The National Conference of State Legislatures is an organization composed of legislatures from all 50 states and various U.S. territories. Its responsibility is to lobby the federal government on issues affecting the states and to encourage the interaction between members of state legislatures on problems common to their individual states. NCSL is the leading voice of state concerns regarding federal policies that impact the states.

NCSL does its work through its nine standing committees, including the Natural Resources and Infrastructure Committee. It acts as a forum for state legislators and legislative staff to learn and share information regarding programs and initiatives, in other states in particular. This committee has jurisdiction over state and federal energy, environment, agriculture and transportation programs, legislation, regulations and policies. With ever growing conflict between states and the federal government regarding upcoming proposed EPA regulations, this committee has taken on a greater role in policy debates.

Ward has served as chairman of both the Senate Energy Committee and Joint Oversight Committee for Energy Policy for the last four years in Alabama.

“I am humbled by this appointment and look forward to continuing the very important work that this committee is charged with performing”, Ward wrote in a release. “Alabama is rapidly becoming one of the leading energy producing states in our country. Alabama and other states are facing big challenges related to different areas of energy, agriculture the environment and transportation. I will do all I can in my capacity as chairman to provide some important and needed direction.”

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Much to be Thankful For

By Cam Ward / Guest Columnist With the election season over and Thanksgiving approaching, now would be a good time for all of us to pause and remind ourselves of everything we have to be thankful for.  Sometimes partisan elections can cause us all to become cynical of the world we live in. That is the nature of the democratic process; however, we should always remember that regardless of election outcomes, we all still have so many blessings to be thankful for. Thanksgiving is one of America’s most preeminent holidays tracing back to 1621 when the first dinner of thanks was celebrated by pilgrims and Native Americans. After nearly being wiped out by drought and poor crop harvest, the pilgrims prayed to God for help. Their prayers were answered in the form of rain and a good crop harvest with the help of Native Americans in the area. As a celebration of this good fortune, 90 people including the local Native Americans held a feast to thank God for their blessings. It was certainly a challenging time but they realized how much they had to be thankful for. While many of us are not faced with such dramatic circumstances as the pilgrims, there are still many things to be thankful for. First and foremost, we should be thankful that we live in a country where we can engage in such a spirited political discussion.  I suspect the people of North Korea and Cuba would love to just taste one day of such freedom. The freedom of speech, to practice whatever religion you choose, and to live as you see fit is something I believe we can all be thankful for. Yes, we have our differences, but they are only a shadow of the brutal repression that occurs in so many other countries. While our civil liberties should be cherished, let us also remember that Thanksgiving is a time to re-engage with our family and friends. Too often, during the hustle of our daily lives we take our loved ones for granted. Taking this time to remind ourselves that family and God are two of the most important factors of our lives should be a priority for everyone. Happy Thanksgiving and may your family have a wonderful holiday. - See more at: http://www.shelbycountyreporter.com/2014/11/25/much-to-be-thankful-for/#sthash.mRmZnMjm.dpuf

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Alabama Has Long, Hard Road to Reform Judicial System

It’s no secret that Alabama’s broken criminal justice system is in the early stages of reform.

But if that reform doesn’t happen to the extent it needs to, officials say the result could be financially crippling for Alabama. The change, however, isn’t going to be easy.

For the past several months, the Prison Reform Task Force, led by state Sen. Cam Ward, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have been working together to study the system, come up with policy recommendations and effectively pinpoint funding needs for improvement.

Underfunded courts, overcrowded prisons and limited rehabilitation services for offenders are all major contributors to the failing system. And up until recent sentencing reform for drug and property criminals, that was part of the problem too.

One of the task force’s main goals — which was also the catalyst that drove the movement toward much-needed reforms — is reducing the capacity of Alabama’s overcrowded prisons, which are at about 190 percent of what they were designed for.

But reversing a criminal justice culture rooted in harsh punishments is not going to be easy for a conservative state that faces more challenges than most other states in the country.

“It’s going to be a huge uphill challenge,” Ward said. “It’s going to be very hard to push through because you have to change a lot of mindsets about how you deal with criminal justice. The goal is simple — you want less crime being committed. You want to make sure public safety comes first.”

Ward said incarceration by itself isn’t the only solution, and that concept is difficult to make people understand. He said investing in programs to help offenders get the services they need will, over time, improve public safety and lower recidivism.

“Long term, we want to reduce crime,” Ward said. “The way you do that is to make sure there’s less incentive and make sure the punishment fits the crime.”

Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who isn’t on the task force but has been to all the task force meetings, said he’s been a defense lawyer, a prosecutor and a circuit judge since he started his career in 1976.

“I consider the present criminal justice system to be unfair in its application,” Moore said. “We have people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim. The habitual felony law has been misused to add extremely long sentences that are unjustified.”

Moore said he has no doubt that the criminal justice system needs reform. He said he believes a major part of the prison overcrowding problem is unfair sentences that have been handed down over the years.

“One of the principal ingredients in justice is fairness,” he said. “Fairness to the victims, the defendants and society. We need to look at all aspects of it.”

Although states such as North Carolina and Texas have implemented reforms that have started to improve their criminal justice systems, none of those states had as many challenges as Alabama does, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

“We’re in the worst situation of any state I’ve seen out there,” Ward said.

Wright said prisons in those states were better staffed, better funded and didn’t have an overcrowding crisis. Alabama’s parole and probation officers also have the highest number of caseloads in the country, he said. Each officer has about 220 cases to manage.

“We are in such a system crisis,” Wright said. “It isn’t about just (corrections), pardons and paroles or the court system. The entire system is underfunded and understaffed. It’s going to take a large, comprehensive, holistic package of reforms to move the system to a more manageable level.”

And that is going to require money, Wright said.

Although state leaders are hoping significant changes can be made without money, Ward said that’s not the case. With a dwindling General Fund, the state is already facing a budget crisis in 2015.

At some point, money will have to be spent on new construction to replace some of the old prisons and improving drug and mental health programming for offenders, Ward said. Right now, resources in the state are scarce, especially in rural communities, he said.

“Before you start throwing money at a problem, there’s got to be some structural reforms put into place to make sure you’re spending money the best way possible,” Ward said.

Andy Barbee, the lead researcher for the CSG, said even if Alabama reduces its prison population by 3,000 or 4,000 inmates, the system would still be at about 175 percent capacity. If significant changes aren’t made, the state will likely face expensive lawsuits that could lead to federal intervention, he said.

Wright said the goal is to change lives, change behavior and change the system. In order to do that, there will need to be a continued stream of adequate funding for courts, prisons, community supervision and rehabilitative programming.

The state has exhausted its “free” reform options, Wright said. The change to presumptive sentencing guidelines for drug and property crimes was a huge step, but it won’t be enough to significantly reduce the prison population.

Managing the prison population also won’t change behavior or reduce recidivism, he said.

Wright said the majority of people who come to prison have a great deal of unmet needs — substance abuse, mental health problems and educational gaps. When you take those people and put them into the community, their needs are still not being met, and it’s much more expensive to provide those services behind bars.

“It’s not a matter of not having (services),” he said. “It’s a matter of which is more effective and which is cheaper.”

Ward said part of the problem is that community supervision has to work. The concept is meant to make sure offenders stay clean and on the right path.

Meridith Barnes, at assistant attorney general and legal counsel for the sentencing commission, said the mindset that you’re protecting the public because you’re locking all the criminals up needs to change.

The right way to approach community supervision is to try to help individuals make life changes.

“It’s a resources issue,” she said. “The state is going to have to find a way to make it a reality. Once we’re there, everyone will see the benefits.”

Barnes said once there are more resources and infrastructure to help people, the pardons and parole board is naturally going to parole more people so they can benefit from those programs. Right now, a lot of people need to get programming while they’re in prison because resources outside are so limited.

“At some point, we’re going to have to decide what really matters and where we’re going to put funding instead of recycling the problem over and over,” Barnes said. “If our policy makers view it as a serious issue, they’re going to have to find money to do it.”

Barbee said before the 2015 legislative session, the CSG research team is going to put together a package of recommended bills and policy changes for the task force. He said it’s not going to be easy to get everyone to agree.

“We can’t expect every single person on this task force will be jumping for joy with the proposals at the end of the day,” Barnes said.

Barnes said because the task force has leaders from different agencies and interests, people automatically look at the problems from their agency’s perspective.

“It’s important for task force members to get past it to do what’s best for the state, even if it means that agency has to change something,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re going to get everyone to buy in and I don’t think everyone’s going to agree at the State House either.”

In the past, legislators have tended to shy away from criminal justice reform after finding out how politically unpopular those efforts are, Wright said.

“It’s really easy to talk in general terms about support for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform,” Wright said. “But once people see the details and what’s involved, their support tends to wane.”

Ward said the process of reform — and reducing the prison population — will take years.

“It’s not going to take one year,” he said. “It look us a long time to get in the mess we’re in.”

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