Alabama senate passes bill to prevent federal takeover of state’s prisons
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Alabama Senate on Thursday passed legislation to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons and possibly even fend off an eminent federal takeover of the system.
Senate Bill 67 by Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), part of senate Republican’s “Paving a Path for the Future” agenda, addresses the state’s failing prison system through reformed felony classifications, alternative sentencing, and additional probation and parole officers.
Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, who had advocated on behalf of the bill, praised lawmakers for doing what he described as the “right” thing.
“This bill is the type of criminal justice reform that has been proven to lower recidivism rates, keep our citizens safer, allow low-level offenders to contribute back into society by lowering penalties for minor non-violent crimes, and save taxpayers millions in incarceration costs,” said Gingrich. “It’s time to not only get tougher on crime, but to get smarter.”
Alabama’s state prisons are estimated to hold nearly twice the number of inmates for which they were originally designed. In California, similar overcrowding compelled a federal judge to order state officials to release tens of thousands of prisoners because he believed conditions violated their constitutional rights.
Sen. Ward said Thursday that he believes the legislation will prevent such a takeover from happening in Alabama.
“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,” he said. “We either build $400 million in prisons or spend much less now on a better long-term strategy.”
The legislation will create a new Class D felony for lower level drug and property crimes. Defendants convicted under the new Class D status will not be affected by the Habitual Offender Act, and could be shuttled towards community service programs designed to rehabilitate these lower-level offenders. Ward’s bill will also utilize alternative sentencing programs by allowing sentences for Class C and Class D offenses to be split between incarceration in a state prison and a supervised community corrections program.
But while the bill passed out of the Senate overwhelmingly (31-2), there has been pushback in recent days from some district attorneys.
Marshall County District Attorney Steve Marshall, for instance, called the bill “rushed” and said he believes it could “adversely impact public safety.”
“Public safety must be the paramount consideration of any reform,” he said. “To suggest that our citizens should have to endure the personal cost of victimization and higher costs for security in exchange for reducing the prison population needs to be weighed carefully. I agree that we, as a state, can and should address this issue, but we need to get it right. A rush to pass a bill for the sake of doing so is bad policy. Giving interested parties the opportunity to understand fully the options and provide informed and intelligent feedback is the wiser path going forward.”
Ward dismissed the concerns, saying he believed the reforms will result in cost-savings for taxpayers, lower recidivism rates, and increased public safety.
“When this session started, we promised bold reform,” he said. “This effort to improve public safety while overhauling our broken Corrections system is one of the largest reform measures in many years. I feel confident that our work with stakeholders throughout the state will pay off with passage of this bill in the legislature.”
The bill now moves to the House where it will be taken up by the Judiciary Committee.
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— Cliff Sims (@Cliff_Sims) December 3, 2014