Governor signs prison reform into law

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In a ceremony at the state Capitol on Thursday, Gov. Robert Bentley signed into law a long-awaited plan to reform Alabama prisons. Senate Bill 67 passed the Legislature this month by a vote of 100-5 in the House of Representatives and by unanimous vote in the Senate. The governor said the “overhaul” of the prison system under SB 67 was the result of a yearlong study of corrections policy by lawmakers and practitioners.

“This is a historic day,” Bentley said. “This legislation changes community supervision to reduce the number of people returning to incarceration, … diverts low-level property and drug offenders away from prison, and it requires supervision for anyone leaving prison. Senate Bill 67 makes the parole process more clear and efficient while observing the board’s discretion. And finally, it expands electronic notification to inform victims of all prison releases.”

According to documents provided by the governor’s office, SB 67 is projected to reduce Alabama’s prison population by 30 percent — or 4,243 people — by 2021.

The governor credited the reforms in the bill to the work of the Prison Reform Task Force and a comprehensive study of the state’s criminal justice system to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety.

Sen. Cam Ward, who chairs the task force, said that the bill represented a “rare” coalition of support for reform.

“When we started the session there was a 10 percent chance of this bill passing,” Ward said. “Any time you can have groups like the Southern Poverty Law Center, ACLU, Alabama Policy Institute, and Republicans working on the same page together, that tells you we have the capacity as a state to work together to solve problems.”

Ward also addressed concerns that the sweeping reforms outlined in the plan could be in jeopardy because of the stripped-down general fund budget recently passed by House lawmakers.

“I know that’s been a big question,” he said. “I assure you, the funding will be there to get these reforms under way.”

The bill is scheduled to take effect on Jan.30.

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