Prison reform bill faces more opposition in Senate committee

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The Senate Committee on General Fund Finance and Taxation took up the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act during a hearing Wednesday when, again, lawmakers were bombarded with opposition from state architects, engineers and contractors in regard to the bill’s design/build mandate.

The bill faced much the same outcry when it went before a House committee last week.

“It’s a good plan,” said Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Daphne), the Senate bill’s sponsor. “But there are people opposed to it.”

As per the ideas laid out in the “State of the State” address by Gov. Robert Bentley, SB287 calls for the demolition of all but two of Alabama’s 16 prisons and provides $800 million in bonds to pay for the construction of four new facilities. Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) Commissioner Jefferson Dunn laid out the plan.

“Over the last 40 or 50 years, every governor and every member of the legislature has always been faced with the issue of corrections,” Dunn said. “We are bringing forth a plan that we believe will address these longstanding problems.”

Dunn noted that the planned move would free up more resources for rehabilitation and reentry, noting that more than 80 percent of prisoners will one day join the citizenry. The four facilities being constructed – one female prison with 1,200 beds and three male prisons with 4,000 beds a piece – will cut overtimes costs for the department, as well as costs related to transportation and healthcare. Along with the four to be constructed, two current facilities will be renovated.

While most committee members noted support for the measure, concerns were vast and widespread. Many were interested in which facilities would be demolished and which would remain, as well as how the ADOC would come up with the roughly $50 million required to make the annual bond payments. Sen. William Beasley (D-Clayton) noted that three prisons are in his district and their removal would “devastate” the local economy.

But the concerns of lawmakers weren’t the only ones voiced – in all, seven people stood to voice their opposition to the bill. While most were architects and contractors, concerned that the bill upends the traditional design/bid/build model. Clyde Marsh, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs (ADVA), voiced concern over the bill’s use of a one-mill tax currently reserved to fund the ADVA and the Department of Human Resources as collateral for the bonds. In the event that the ADOC was unable to make its payments, the tax would be diverted to make up those payments.

Lawmakers took no vote on the bill and will appear before the committee again next week.

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