At the final meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, Representative Chris England said the prison crisis should be a top priority for state lawmakers.
“We are failing across the board,” England said. “I hope that not only have we met and discussed the problems, but when we open our session up, this committee produces some actual resolutions to some of these issues.”
Ivey created the task force last summer to develop reform proposals ahead of the 2020 legislative session. The group includes several lawmakers, as well as state leaders and the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections.
Alabama has been under mounting pressure to improve its prison system since the release of a scathing report by the Department of Justice about the state’s male prisons. The report, released last April, detailed rampant violence and sexual assault among inmates and highlighted chronic overcrowding, understaffing and mismanagement in the Alabama Department of Corrections. In recent months, the violence has continued and overcrowding has gotten worse.
Advocates have continuously attended the study group meetings in Montgomery, rallying in front of the state house and suggesting their own proposals for reform. Many shared personal stories of how the prison system has impacted them.
In its final report released last week, the task force says it is time for comprehensive reform, but there is no easy solution.
“We will not be able to address all of our prison challenges in a single legislative session or a single budget year,” said Justice Champ Lyons in a letter describing the group’s conclusions. “The challenges we have inherited are multifaceted and complex. They are longstanding. And they will require spending significant sums of taxpayer money.”
Ahead of the legislative session, which begins Tuesday, the study group recommends several proposals for lawmakers. A central focus is on funding more programs inside prison to help inmates re-enter society. At the final meeting, Justice Lyons said all inmates can benefit from education, like a GED course or vocational training, but even that idea can be controversial.
“I can understand persons who are incarcerated for horrible violent crimes, it’s not really a popular idea that they be given any training,” Lyons said. “But if you don’t train them, they’re gonna come back out and the likelihood of them going back to violence will be increased.”
The group recommends some sentencing reform, such as retroactive application of 2015 sentencing guidelines. It also recommends further study of policies to target specific populations, like some violent offenders sentenced to life without parole under the Habitual Felony Offender Act.
Other proposals include increasing the DOC’s $521 million budget by an additional $42 million, or 8%. The group also suggests more legislative oversight of the prison system. Representative Chris England says many lawmakers were surprised by the findings in the DOJ report, which is a problem.
“I think it’s incumbent upon us as a legislature and the state government as a whole to keep up with periodic reporting requirements,” England said, “and make sure that we know and we have a handle on what’s going on inside our facilities, so we don’t have to find out from the federal government.”
In addition to the study group’s proposals, Gov. Kay Ivey is moving forward with a plan to construct three new regional prisons to replace more than a dozen male facilities. Many advocates and some lawmakers have spoken out against the plan, which could cost around $1 billion dollars. But state Senator Cam Ward says prison construction will help improve conditions.
“I do think that new facilities are needed,” Ward said, “and the reason being is this: you wouldn’t put your dog in some of these prisons.”
Throughout the past few months, the task force has also focused on the importance of programs like drug courts and mental health courts, which can offer an alternative to prison. In its final report, the group says the state needs to gather more data about existing programs and come up with a plan to expand the ones that work.
Despite their agreement on issues like community corrections and inmate education, members of the task force continually brought up the issue of funding.
“I think we will be successful in putting some of these things in place,” said Representative Jim Hill. “The question I have is, ‘How are we going to pay for them?'”
Justice Champ Lyons addressed that question in his letter to Gov. Ivey, emphasizing the need to find the money.
“If we try to adhere to the status quo and decline to spend necessary funds to improve the situation now,” Lyons said, “we risk burdensome remedies imposed by a federal court—remedies that could be far costlier to the state than some of the proposals that have been discussed in our study group and that are available to us now at lower cost.”