Playing Politics With Prison Reform is Dangerous

By Cam Ward, an Alabama State Senator and chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee.; and Mike Jones, Jr. an Alabama State Representative and chair of the House Judiciary Committee

Last year, an inmate walking out the door of an Alabama correctional facility might have spent the first day of his or her release, and every day thereafter, under virtually no supervision.

Many people in the state who were convicted of serious, even violent, offenses who served long sentences did not receive sufficient supervision and treatment upon release, increasing the likelihood that they would reoffend. According to the latest research—and common sense—this put our public safety at risk.

Now, as a result of legislation passed late last year, every single person who serves a prison sentence will be supervised upon release. We believe this is a major step forward in keeping Alabamians safer. Curiously, this same law is suddenly under fire from some of the same people involved in its writing.

state Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia.Prior to the new law, Alabama faced a crisis: State prisons had reached extreme levels of overcrowding, operating at 195 percent of capacity. Years of avoiding the issue came to a head in 2014, when the federal government threatened to intervene.

With assistance from national experts who have helped states such as North Carolina, West Virginia and Texas tackle similar problems, the legislature passed a comprehensive plan last year to safely ease the overcrowding, save taxpayers money and reinvest savings into strategies that are proven to bolster public safety.

Newly vocal opponents would have you believe that our prisons are filled only with people who have committed violent crimes, and that to reduce overcrowding we're letting violent criminals out of prison to roam the streets. This is not true.

In 2013, 40 percent of prison admissions consisted of people who violated their probation or parole supervision, and about 30 percent of those admissions were due to technical violations, such as breaking curfews or testing positive for drug use.

The law passed last year created a new category of felonies—Class-D—for the lowest-level property and drug offenses, ensuring that the degree of punishment is proportionate to the seriousness of the crime, and that prison space is reserved for people who commit violent crimes or are most likely to reoffend.

The law also dictates that all people who leave prison will receive supervision to ensure they stay on the straight and narrow. By 2018, 3,000 additional people each year will be monitored who previously would have been unsupervised after release from prison.

How do we oversee all these additional people? The new law funds the hiring of additional probation and parole officers and ensures that supervision resources are focused on people who are most likely to reoffend.

Incarceration is still an option for people who violate the terms of their supervision. Swift sanctions, including short, immediate jail stays, will now be imposed for technical violations of probation and parole. The new law also invests $4 million in  expanding substance-use treatment for probationers and parolees, the first such investment in Alabama's history.

We trust the nationwide research that shows that people are less likely to reoffend if they receive treatment in the community rather than in prison. Requiring people who commit lower-level offenses to serve their sentences on probation or in a community corrections program allows the state to prioritize prison space for people who commit more serious crimes.

A year ago, we could not have anticipated needing to rehash these arguments. Alabama had the most crowded prisons in the country, and federal intervention was a real and frightening possibility. And yet we felt confident we could change course, because stakeholders—legislators, judges, law enforcement officials, and yes, even district attorneys—came together to find a solution. In fact, district attorneys held three seats—more than any other stakeholder—on the Prison Reform Task Force, the group that made the recommendations that led to the new law after months of extensive dialogue.

So, if you hear people cast doubt on this law, look closely at what we would face without it. Picture a line graph spiking to show an astronomical rise in Alabama's prison population. Picture the federal government intervening in our state's public safety operation. And picture people leaving prison with no oversight in the community.

Alabama deserves better, and that's the truth.

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