Prison overhaul wins final passage, goes to Gov. Robert Bentley

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The Legislature on Thursday gave final approval to sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards in an effort to relieve severe overcrowding in state prisons.

Alabama prisons house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold, a crowding level that has been called both dangerous and one that puts the state in danger of federal intervention.

“Public safety is first and foremost. It always has been. The system we’ve got right now does not work,” said bill sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican.

The approved legislation seeks to gradually reduce crowding during the next five years by steering low-level offenders away from prison with the creation of a new Class D felony category and making changes to probation and supervision to try to reduce recidivism.

“It is going to allow us to have real systemic reforms over a five- or six-year period. It won’t happen immediately, but your Legislature is finally doing something right in regards to prisons. If we do nothing, you can guarantee this: The federal government or federal officers will do it for us, and we should be ashamed as elected officials that we allowed that to happen,” Ward said.

The House of Representatives passed the bill on a 100-5 vote. The state Senate voted 27-0 to go along with House changes. Go.v Robert Bentley said he plans to sign the bill after a legal review.

“Today’s passage of SB 67 is a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama’s criminal justice system,” Bentley said.

The House also approved a related bill to steer $60 million for the construction of 1,500 to 2,000 new prison beds. That bill now moves to the Alabama Senate.

The two bills are designed to bring prison populations down to 137 percent capacity in the next five years, Ward said. That’s a crowding level that federal courts have found acceptable when crowding lawsuits have been brought in other states.

The Alabama prison system was placed in federal receivership in the 1970’s which led to a court-ordered release of inmates. The state prison system has been in an unfavorable spotlight again in recent years over overcrowding, low staffing levels and violence.

The U.S. Department of Justice is investigating conditions at the state’s only prison for women after accusing the state of failing to protect inmates from sexual abuse and harassment. State inmates sued the state last year over medical care. Four inmates were killed during a 14-month period at St. Clair Correctional Facility in Springville. The facility was placed on lock-down last month because of a riot.

The legislation was the product of a prison reform task force and crafted in conjunction with the Council of State Governments. Senators applauded Ward after passage of the bill he had worked on for the past year, balancing agreements with prosecutors, victims’ advocates and others.

The bill would also:

  • Provide for hiring more than 100 new probation officers. Currently probate and parole officer have caseloads of 200 people each. The hiring would take caseloads down to less than 100 each. The bill comes at an estimated annual price of $23 million, with much of the cost increase coming from hiring additional probation officers, Ward said.
  • Mandate that people who commit technical parole violations, such as failing to show up for a drug test, would get a three-day stint in jail.

The legislation won praise from a group that often criticizes bills moving in the Alabama Legislature.

“The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious over-incarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it,” Susan Watson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, said.

The conservative-leaning Alabama Policy Institute also praised the passage. “The work isn’t over, but we have now taken a significant step towards solving a problem that has been decades in the making,” API Vice President Katherine Robertson said.

Republished with permission of The Associated Press.

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