State Sen. Ward warns fed takeover of prison system could result in mass releases, increase in homelessness; Predicts special session in early 2020
While the focus has shifted away from state politics to national and presidential politics, still on the horizon is a possible special session of the legislature to address Alabama’s beleaguered prison system.
Earlier this year, the Department of Justice through the three U.S. Attorney’s offices in Alabama advised the state government that some of the current men’s prisons were in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution’s “cruel and unusual punishment” provision. It also implied that if measures were not taken to improve the situation, the prison system could face action from the federal government, which could come in the form of a takeover.
During an appearance on Huntsville’s WVNN on Wednesday, State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who has been leading the effort on prison reform in the Alabama State Senate, explained policymakers were awaiting data that was necessary to determine what steps needed to be taken to rectify the problem.
“What we’ve got to do is – I’ve told the governor,” Ward said. “I’ve also told other legislators – let’s get this right. Let’s do this and not have every year we come back and have to deal with a court ruling, a court finding or a [Department of Justice] finding. But in order to do that, we need the data. If there’s going to be sentencing changes, if there’s going to be prison changes, let’s get the data to get it done. We’ve talked to the Sentencing Commission, which is a non-partisan group, agency in the state of Alabama. And they said we need about three or four months to get you the data you need. So, let’s don’t rush this. Let’s do a special session but let’s do one when we know we’re going to get it right the first time and not keep coming back to this year after year after year.”
The Shelby County Republican said construction of new prisons was a minor part of the resolving the situation.
“Everyone focuses on the construction aspect,” he said. “I would say that’s only 25% of the issue.”
The possible consequences of inaction or further delayed action could be the federal government putting Alabama’s prison system in receivership, which could result in a mass release of inmates, as was the case in California.
“The federal courts don’t care because they’re not policymakers,” he added. “We are. All they look at is you’ve got to be in a constitutional standard, and then your state government – you’re basically surrendering control of your system when you do that. And that’s what happens. You see the situation like in L.A. where you have the huge homeless issue. We don’t want to go down that route. California is not the way to go.”
Late in this year’s legislative session, State Senate President Pro-Tem Del Marsh (R-Anniston) suggested Governor Kay Ivey could call a special session as early as this fall to deal with the problem. However, Ward said early 2020 was more of a realistic timeframe.
“I think realistically you’re talking about the first of the year, maybe the end of January, first of February,” he added.