The Alabama Legislature, on Friday, gave final passage to a comprehensive bill aimed at reducing overcrowding in state prisons. The legislation would deal with offenders in a responsible way by creating a new class designation for nonviolent offenses and placing a bigger emphasis on community supervision programs designed to reduce the likelihood of an offender becoming a repeat offender.
Alabama faced some tough choices this legislative session. The state was looking at the very real possibility of federal interference due to severe prison overcrowding. In 2012, the Alabama Department of Corrections explained that "[t]he overall occupancy rate of Alabama Prisons is 189.3%—a rate that is very close to double of the designed capacity of all State owned facilities." Some facilities had occupancy rates that exceeded 300 percent, posing a serious safety threat to inmates and prison employees.
Between 1980 and 2012, Alabama saw the number of inmates in its prison rises from 5,892 to 32,574, a 453 percent increase. State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) saw the risk of a costly federal lawsuit that, he believes, the state could not win. "That is the biggest nightmare I have," Ward told the Montgomery Advertiser, "as far as the budget goes."
Alabama experienced a federal takeover of its prisons in January 1976 due to the dangerous and violent atmosphere in them. Bill Baxley, the state’s attorney general at the time, did not even fight the takeover. "It was clear we were defending an indefensible practice," Baxley recalls. "After we saw the enormity of the problem, we just conceded. It was better to concede than waste state money and resources fighting it that might help straighten out the situation."
Simply throwing more money in the prison system was an untenable solution. Lawmakers, like Ward, sought to address the underlying problems by offering a substantive solution that will save taxpayers money and reduce prison populations while protecting public safety. In March, Ward introduced SB 67, a comprehensive prison reform bill that creates new sentencing options for low-level offenders, places a bigger emphasis on parole and probation, and seeks to reduce the rate of repeat offenders through community supervision programs.
"The idea behind much of the prison reform package is to invest in supervision of people coming out of prison – an approach that has drastically reduced reoffending in other states," Ward said in April. "We either build $400 million in prisons or spend much less now on a better long-term strategy."
Other Republican states have thought outside the box when it comes to the justice system. In 2007, Texas passed landmark prison reforms that focused on reducing the number of nonviolent offenders in its prison system and requiring them to go through work training, education, and rehabilitation programs as a means to put their lives on the right track.
The Texas reforms were a resounding success. The state closed three prisons and saved taxpayers $2 billion in planned prison construction costs. Importantly, these reforms promoted public safety as crime and repeat offender rates dropped. A recent poll found that the reforms enjoy strong support from Texans.
Other Republican states — including Georgia and Mississippi — have adopted justice reforms similar to the Texas model and have seen success.
Ward believes Alabama will see similar benefits to prison reform. Judging by the votes on SB 67 in the Alabama Legislature, his colleagues felt the same way. In April, the prison reform bill cleared the state Senate by a vote of 32 to 2. The state House followed and approved the bill with some changes on Friday in a 100 to 5 vote.
SB 67 now heads to the desk of Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, who praised legislature’s efforts. "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. This legislation represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to make the criminal justice system more efficient," said Bentley. "After a full legal review, I plan to sign the bill."
Lawmakers, though, realize SB 67 is only the beginning of justice reform in Alabama. "This is not the final step," said Ward. "This is the first step in a long path forward."