Criminal justice reform supporters in Alabama celebrated a victory on Sept. 16, when the Alabama Legislature voted to allocate $16 million of its $1.7 billion General Fund budget to justice reinvestment efforts in the state.
Signed by Governor Robert Bentley (pictured left) on Sept. 17, the budget was the subject of a six-month stalemate between Gov. Bentley, the Senate, and the House, a process that threatened to shut down some state services if a resolution wasn’t reached in time for the start of the new fiscal year on Thursday, Oct. 1.
The approved budget allocates $166 million in new revenue—comprising an increase in the cigarette tax, new taxes on pharmacies and nursing homes, and the transfer of $80 million from the Education Trust Fund to the General Fund—which covers most of the projected $200 million shortfall in the General Fund and makes way for the $16 million allocation for justice reinvestment efforts.
With its prisons operating at 185 percent of capacity, in June 2014 Alabama launched its Justice Reinvestment Initiative to address this issue. Following research and recommendations from The Council of State Governments Justice Center and the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, Gov. Bentley signed into law a comprehensive prison reform bill in May 2015, which aimed to reduce the state’s prison population by 4,200 over five years.
The reform bill—sponsored by Alabama Senator Cam Ward (R–District 14), who is the chair of the Prison Reform Task Force—focused on diverting people convicted of nonviolent offenses away from prison, as well as investing in parole, probation, and other community-based services aimed at reducing recidivism.
“Periodically, every agency, office, or program receiving public funds should be reviewed for effectiveness and efficiency,” wrote Sen. Ward in a February 2015 op-ed about criminal justice reform in the Anniston Star. “In a way, the demand to reduce our prison population requires that we apply these same principles to the oft-overlooked corrections system.…There is a clear need to make additional investments into our system, but this must be coupled with diverting resources away from programs or processes that aren’t achieving these purposes. The goal of these reforms should not necessarily be to spend less, but to spend more wisely.”
The slice of the new General Fund budget allocated to justice reinvestment will provide continued funding for many of the services laid out in the reform bill, as well as funds for state courts and the prisons themselves.
“All those services being level-funded was a great achievement, I think, by the Legislature, to get that done,” said Alabama Senator and Senate budget Chairman Arthur Orr (R-District 3) in an interview with AL.com.
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