General Fund could be devastating to prison reform bill, Department of Corrections

Published: Jun. 1, 2015 at 9:43 PM CDT|Updated: Nov. 30, 2015 at 10:57 PM CST
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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - One of the most significant pieces of legislation that was passed this session is in real jeopardy as lawmakers were not been able to come up with a way, on Monday, to fund the Prison Reform bill the Governor signed earlier this month. Without the extra money, the risk for federal intervention is significantly increased.

The prison reform bill, as it's written, needs up to $26 million a year for the next five years to implement. But Senator Cam Ward, who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task force, the group behind the writing of the bill, says the Department of Corrections could feasibly begin implementation with just $12 million in the first year. 

The entire prison reform bill is centered around relieving overcrowding. If lawmakers can't come up with any more money for the General Fund, the Department of Corrections will be forced to close two facilities, making the overcrowding problem even bigger.

"If we pass the budget we have today, with no new revenue, we will have a 226, I think it's 226, percent capacity in prisons," Sen. Ward said. "That would be more than anybody in the world."

That's just the opposite of what the Prison Reform Bill was aiming to do for the Department of Corrections.

"The forecast is over a 5-year period with a goal of reducing by 4,500," said DOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn. 

Dunn believes overcrowding is the driving force behind almost all of the prison system's other problems.  

"It causes security issues, it causes personnel issues, it causes issues at our facilities, it causes safety issues," Dunn said.

Without at least an extra $12 million to fund the first year of implementing the reform bill, federal intervention could become more than a threat.

"I'm very concerned, very concerned," says Ward, explaining that Alabama can't afford to pass a budget that doesn't fund prison reform."You can take it to the bank that the General Fund will be owned, most certainly, by the federal courts."

Last week, the Senate was unable to move any measures through that would help the General Fund's ends meet. Now, the only option left on the table is the House version that cuts more than $200 million to state agencies. An option Ward says isn't really an option. 

"It will make our problems ten times worse when we come back in August or September for a special session," Ward said.

A special session, now almost a guarantee, doesn't leave much room for the Department of Corrections to plan. So Commissioner Dunn will plan now as though he'll get the money he needs. 

"We're going to count on that, at least initially, until we don't," Dunn said.

Alabama has been here before with nearly every other state agency.  

"Alabama had a takeover in the late 1970's, early 1980's in prisons. They've had one in Mental Health, they've had one in DHR and we're repeating the same cycle. It's a bad mistake. You can't keep going back and doing the same things over and over and expect a different result," Ward says. "This is a mistake on our part because we're going to say that if we cut ourselves $247 million in our General Fund budget, and that somehow, someway, things will be okay, it's not." 

Sen. Ward estimates an intervention in this case would cost the state about $300-400 million.

The legislature will meet Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday this week. The original plan was to get a budget passed by Thursday. Now Senators are starting to re-think that plan. 

Since the only feasible budget to pass right now is the House version that the Governor has already vowed to veto, some in the Senate are considering not passing any budget at all, and start working toward a special session. 

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