By Kelsey Stein
A national organization that helps states analyze and improve their criminal justice systems could offer recommendations for Alabama by December, if its involvement receives final approval.
Representatives of the Council of State Governments Justice Center this week have met with dozens of people in Alabama who are involved with the criminal justice system.
While the agreement awaits approval, Andrew Barbee, a research manager, and Marc Pelka, the director of the Justice Reinvestment Program, spoke with lawmakers, Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas and his staff, attorneys, judges, victims’ advocates and others.
They have begun studying reports that outline system-wide crime trends, arrest rates, sentencing, probation and parole to prepare a system overview to present to Alabama’s recently formed prison reform task force, perhaps as early as next month.
“It’s a hurdle for states to formally demonstrate interest in justice reinvestment because it requires that bipartisan and inter-branch coordination,” Pelka said. “In a number of ways, Alabama has stood out because of the support expressed from leaders in the letter they submitted.”
He emphasized that the bulk of the work involved in revamping the criminal justice system lies with state officials and the prison task force, with the justice center analyzing data and offering recommendations to policymakers.
At the first working group meeting, which could take place in June, Barbee expects to present a broad system overview, offer case studies from other states, outline options for reducing recidivism and describe the proposed scope of the work in Alabama.
If the project begins in June as planned, several meetings will take place over the course of six months. Policy options could be discussed in December and used to draft legislation for the 2015 session.
Because the justice center’s involvement in the state is in the preliminary stages, Barbee and Pelka spoke with stakeholders in general terms about how the process – called “justice reinvestment” – works. The organization’s work in Alabama would come at no cost to the state.
Reinvestment is identifying “better practices in ways that maintain and improve public safety in a more cost-effective manner,” Barbee said. Those savings are then re-invested in the criminal justice system, with many states funding substance abuse and mental health programs.
The justice center has worked with 18 states so far and works with two or three each year. Last year, the organization helped to address prison problems in Michigan and Idaho, where a sweeping reform bill was recently signed into law.
Sen. Cam Ward, the chairman of the Alabama Legislature’s prison oversight committee, has praised the organization, calling it “the leading driver behind prison reform across the country.”
In a report issued in January, the U.S. Department of Justice outlined problems that have existed for decades in Alabama’s prison system and spelled out a variety of suggested improvements. Among the most persistent problems is overcrowding, as prison populations remain significantly over their designed capacity.
“Everyone has been up-front in acknowledging that the state does indeed face some very real challenges, and that the state does need solutions sooner rather than later,” Barbee said.