MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Sizeable changes are coming to Alabama’s criminal justice system and its prisons. The reforms were ordered by the Department of Justice after an investigation determined the state’s prisons are so dangerous it’s depriving prisoners of their basic civil rights.
Lawmakers expect to be called back for a special legislative session to consider a number of solutions to meet DOJ’s demands. WSFA is launching a special series to explore potential solutions and what those could mean for your tax dollars and your community. It’s a high-stakes proposition: pass sweeping reform or face federal receivership.
The chief mandate is to reduce the overall prison population by 15 to 18 percent, which roughly accounts for 3,000 prisoners. Lawmakers must decide if they will look to a combination of short and long-term solutions to promptly bring the corrections system down to size.
Short-term solutions will expeditiously pare down the population but will require infrastructure that currently doesn’t exist.
Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, says we can expect lawmakers to debate retroactive sentencing measures, likely the strongest short-term consideration.
“The only way you get any large-scale relief is retroactive application of some policy,” Wright explained. “If you don’t have that you are going to see a more gradual decline.”
Wright looked to the presumptive sentencing guidelines passed in 2013 as an example of retroactive application.
“For those individuals that were convicted of a crime or would have had restrictions placed on them if they were sentenced after 2013,” Wright stated.
The state's court system is overloaded, a mechanism to assess prisoners who qualify for retroactive sentencing and a re-entry program would be part of that discussion.
“You will probably see some proposals put out to try to ease that,” he said. “That will be front and center as one of the policies that will be discussed.”
In 2017 Louisiana passed a sweeping Justice Reinvestment Act on the notion that the state was overspending on a flawed prison system that didn't benefit overall safety. The multi-pronged approach helped the state shed the title of the largest prison population in the country.
One year after the reforms were implemented the prison population was reduced by 7.6 percent. Specifically, Louisiana dramatically decreased the number of people it was sending to prison by doing away with mandatory minimums for low-level non-violent offenses and identifying nearly 2,000 non-violent prisoners who were eligible for early release under a new “good time” provision.
According to information released by the state, 120 of those early releases were sent back to prison due to parole violations or new offenses.
The reform saved the station around $14 million following its first year, the majority of that funding is divided among re-entry services, prison programs, and victim services.
While Louisiana has quickly reduced its population, the policies on the table aren’t globally comparable. In fact, we found Alabama stands alone in the current reform demands.
“Alabama didn’t continue to build prisons or maintain their physical infrastructure the same way most other states did,” stated Wright. “Alabama is a storm of lack of building, lack of funding, and a lack of reform until fairly recently and it’s trying to address all issues at one time. That has never happened anywhere across the nation.”
Finding the right reform could be less taxing than securing the funding for costly changes, much-needed programs, and infrastructure.
Wright says Alabama doesn't have the luxury of putting this decision off another year, nor can it fiscally afford federal receivership.
“The danger is Alabama loses control of its own budget,” Wright said. “That would jeopardize everyone who’s funded out of the General Fund Budget.”
WSFA 12 News will highlight other reforms including long-term solutions that address those convicted of felonies, community corrections, ramping up drug and mental health courts, and community-based alternatives.