Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy delivers recommendations to Ivey — ‘Urgent need to act’
MONTGOMERY — Former Alabama Associate Justice Champ Lyons on Thursday delivered a letter to Governor Kay Ivey detailing the recommendations of the governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy.
Lyons is chairman of the bipartisan study group, which was established last year via an Ivey executive order to receive and analyze accurate data, as well as evidence of best practices, ultimately helping to further address the serious challenges facing Alabama’s corrections system.
The group’s formation in 2019 came after the Department of Justice concluded that there is reasonable cause to believe that the conditions in Alabama’s prisons for men violate the Eighth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution regarding “cruel and unusual punishment.” The DOJ 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.
The governor’s study group met for the last time earlier this month and subsequently submitted a comprehensive report to Ivey that includes all of the testimony and research the group encountered. Ivey’s press secretary explained that the governor has remained “engaged with Justice Lyons on the group’s discussions.”
Lyons’ letter delivered Thursday warned of “the urgent need to act” on the recommendations.
“The members of our bipartisan, intragovernmental Study Group do not see eye-to-eye on every policy proposal that came before us. But we do agree on one thing: That the challenges facing our prison system are serious and require a sustained commitment to action, both now and into the future,” Lyons wrote.
Besides Lyons, who served as chair because he was Ivey’s designated proxy, the study group consisted of the attorney general; three members of the Alabama House of Representatives appointed by the speaker of the House; three members of the Senate appointed by the president pro tempore; the state commissioner of corrections; and the state director of finance. Proxies were allowed for each member of the study group.
Legislative members of the study group included: State Senators Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and Clyde Chambliss (R-Prattville), Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) and State Representatives Jim Hill (R-Moody), Connie Rowe (R-Jasper) and Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa).
Lyons wrote to the governor, “We recognize that your Administration, working with the Legislature, has already begun to take meaningful steps to address this situation. But we cannot rest on our laurels.”
“If we try to adhere to the status quo and decline to spend necessary funds to improve the situation now, we risk burdensome remedies imposed by a federal court—remedies that could be far costlier to the State than some of the proposals that have been discussed in our Study Group and that are available to us now at lower cost,” he advised. “Moreover, we do not want to find ourselves in the position of California in 2012 when the U.S. Supreme Court held that California’s prison system violated inmates’ Eighth Amendment rights and affirmed a three-judge panel’s order to decrease the population of California’s prisons by an estimated 46,000 inmates.”
“In short, too much is at stake—for crime victims, for inmates, for DOC employees, and ultimately for the cause of public safety itself—for us not to seize this moment and continue building on the efforts of your Administration that are already underway,” Lyons added.
The letter stressed a “new commitment to reducing recidivism,” calling that a “broad point of consensus.”
Conversely, Lyons noted sentencing guidelines as a general point of disagreement that “we will not likely resolve soon.”
The study group’s specific recommendations were broken down into three categories: “(1) proposals related to operations of the Department of Corrections; (2) proposals related to sentencing laws; and (3) proposals related to reducing recidivism.”
Related to the operations of ADOC, the study group recommended increased legislative oversight of the department, as well as increased state appropriations for the department.
Next, of sentencing reform, Lyons wrote, “[M]y sense is that the Study Group members wish to proceed with great caution in this area.”
“I believe that Study Group members could support very narrowly drafted legislation granting targeted, retroactive sentencing relief to certain categories of nonviolent offenders,” he explained, before outlining three recommendations aimed to fit that description.
Finally, for reducing recividism, Lyons pointed to recommendations covering increased funding for in-custody educational programs; positively incentivizing prisoners to get an education while in custody; which individuals are mandated to undergo pre-release supervision; providing inmates with government ID upon their release; increased flexibility of parolee officers’ working hours; expansion of an existing mental health program; and further study of community corrections programs.
Lyons then closed with some parting thoughts.
In part, he wrote, “Finally, and most importantly, let me reiterate that we will not be able to address all of our prison challenges in a single legislative session or a single budget year. The challenges we have inherited are multifaceted and complex. They are longstanding. And they will require spending significant sums of taxpayer money. But by taking actions like the ones we have identified, I firmly believe that it is possible to set Alabama on a course to operating a prison system that will withstand scrutiny in the courts while ultimately enhancing public safety.”
Read the full recommendations here.
Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn