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Ala. Legislature reforms prisons in effort to ease overcrowding, avoid federal takeover

Alabama prison
MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature passed sweeping prison reform with only 5 dissenting votes last week, culminating several years of work by a broad coalition seeking to ease overcrowding in the system while maintaining public safety.

“This is not the final step,” the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), emphasized. “This is the first step in a long path forward. I’m just very proud our state has finally taken a meaningful step forward in prison reform.”

The legislation was handled in the House by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia).

The bill, once it is signed by Governor Bentley, is expected to shrink the prison system’s population by 4,500 inmates over the next 5 years. It also reduces the penalties for some nonviolent and drug-related crimes and strengthens the state’s parole program in an effort to reduce recidivism.

A companion bill, which has yet to gain final passage, would allow the state to issue $60 million in bonds to pay for an expansion of the system’s capacity, which is currently at nearly 200 percent. This would bring the state down to around 140 percent capacity over the next 5 years and presumably keep the federal government from taking over the system, as it has done in other severely overcrowded systems around the country.

Ward emphasized that public safety was the primary goal of these reforms, saying, “No one is getting released early. However, how we deal with inmates going forward as well as how we deal with inmates who are already on parole and their supervision will be dealt with and handled differently.”

Alabama Policy Institute Vice President Katherine Robertson, who was part of the task force that developed the bill, said in a statement, “This collaborative effort has provided the necessary catalyst of meaningful reform to Alabama’s prison system. The work isn’t over, but we have now taken a significant step towards solving a problem that has been decades in the making.”

But while the prison reform legislation has drawn almost universal praise, it still needs funding. Legislators must patch an estimated $250 million hole in the state’s General Fund Budget to ensure the implementation of the bill’s new mandates and programs.

Governor Robert Bentley is expected to sign the bill after a full legal review.