ACCA’s Brasfield: Prison reform ‘not possible’ without impacting Alabama’s 67 county jails
Still looming for state lawmakers is the issue of prison reform. Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report outlining its concerns with the Alabama Department of Corrections’ prison facilities, which it said could violate the “cruel and unusual punishment” provision of the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Last month, Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) argued that in addition to building new facilities, sentencing guidelines and the data related to that needed to be examined by the lawmakers before they could tackle prison reform in a possible special session called by Gov. Kay Ivey.
However, changes in those sentencing guidelines could directly impact Alabama’s 67 counties and their jail systems, given the punishment for some crimes could mean time in a county jail facility and not one of Alabama’s prisons facilities. In an appearance on Huntsville radio’s WVNN on Friday, Association of County Commissioners of Alabama executive director Sonny Brasfield argued input from the 67 counties in Alabama should be considered by the legislature when it convenes to tackle prison reform.
“At its core, the Department of Corrections and the 67 county jails around the state are joined at the hip,” Brasfield said on “The Jeff Poor Show.” “It is not really possible to make changes in the state prison system that do not have some impact one way or another on the jails around Alabama. In 2015, there was a set of prison reform-sentencing reform bills passed through the legislature. We were involved with those. There was a study commission. The folks from the Pew Charitable Trust were here and spent a great deal of time, made some recommendations, most of which were adopted by the Alabama legislature. They’ve clearly had an impact on the population — inside the residential population at the Department of Corrections. I think that population is down about 17% or so.”
“I wish I could tell you the population inside the county jails is down 17% in that time period,” he continued. “It’s not. We’re in the midst of conducting some research with the counties to be able to also to present to the legislature to say, ‘You know, here’s where we were in 2014. Here’s where we are now.’ So if we’re going to make some other changes, we need to look at this problem not just through the prism of the Department of Corrections but also through the prism of the 67 jails throughout the state. There are a handful of counties looking at building new jails, and that’s always the case.”
“The changes in 2015 – I can’t say they’re forcing the construction of those jails,” Brasfield added. “What I can tell you is counties are looking at having to construct new jails, and that’s extremely expensive, and there’s only one way to pay for that. And that means the taxpayers in those counties have got to provide additional revenue.”
Brasfield said he anticipates some kind of framework to be in place before the issue hits the floors of the two chambers of the Alabama State House.
“I don’t think there’s anybody involved in this process that believes we can make improvements to address the issues, and there are issues with the Department of Corrections,” he said. “There are issues in county jails just to be honest. I don’t think anybody believes we can address those issues if we have to fight it out among ourselves in the Alabama State House.”
“I don’t think anybody wants to go in that building and have the Alabama Department of Corrections on one side of the battle line and on the other side you have the counties and the sheriffs, and you have to count noses and solve the problem that way. Certainly, that’s not what we want to do, and it’s not what we think will happen. I think that you’ll see — Governor Ivey has appointed a task force. They’ve already had one meeting. They have others scheduled, and I think you’ll see us all around the table searching for a solution. Is there a magic potion? I don’t think so. I think we’ll have to make some tweaks to the 2015 legislation. Certainly, construction of new prisons is an issue. Certainly, security inside the prisons is an issue. And then, for us, our concern is making sure whatever changes happen at the state level don’t have unintended consequences back in all 67 counties.”
He also insisted his organization was indeed going to be part of the ultimate solution.
“It’s not likely Sonny Brasfield is going to be quiet enough that somebody says, ‘Aw shoot – we didn’t know how this was going to affect counties,’” he added. “But you’re right – that’s our issue. Our issue is to be part of the solution. We didn’t get in this posture with our prison system in six months, a year or two years. And we’re not going to have a special [session] or deal with it in the regular and solve it by passing as a three-page bill. That’s not how it’s going to happen. It’s going to take time and cooperation. I will tell you the sheriffs all around this state want to be part of the solution.”