Attorney General Jeff Sessions penned a memo to federal prosecutors in early May asking them to stop seeking lenient sentences for drug offenders and instead seek “the most serious, readily provable” charges.
It marked a reversal from modest reforms made under the Obama administration, and a signal that the Department of Justice will be ramping up policies that contribute to mass incarceration.
But back home in Alabama, which elected Sessions to the U.S. Senate four times, the Republican-led state government has done the opposite — embarking on criminal justice reforms that have lowered the state’s prison population.
Alabama’s prisons are among the most overcrowded in the country; the Alabama Department of Corrections noted in its annual report for fiscal year 2014 that its “facilities operate at about 190 percent of capacity.”
It began to tackle that problem in 2013, with sentencing reform for certain nonviolent crimes that made it more likely that courts would steer some convicted criminals away from incarceration.
In February 2014, the legislature followed up on these reforms by creating the Prison Reform Task Force. This task force put forth a set of recommendations that formed the basis of Senate Bill 67, which in 2015 passed unanimously in the Senate and by a 100 to 5 vote in the House.
SB 67 aimed to reduce Alabama’s prison population by 4,500 over five years through a combination of reforms including reducing penalties for some nonviolent and drug crimes and expanding parole and supervision to reduce the number of people going to prison.
“We want the bad guys behind bars. But at the same time, we can’t afford to put everybody behind bars,” Alabama’s Republican House Speaker Mike Hubbard told the local press. “What we’re trying to do is be smart on crime. We obviously want to punish people.”
Bennett Wright is the executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, which has been in charge of looking at reforms and advising the state on how to proceed. He explained the impacts of Alabama’s reforms to The Intercept.
“The Alabama Department of Corrections has custody of approximately 4,000 inmates less than it did October 1, 2013,” he said of the impact of reforms that began that year. “So the actual custodial population is down about 4,000 which represents a drop of almost 15 percent.”
Simultaneously, Wright said, there has been no increase in crime.
“I have seen no information that represents an uptick of crime statewide,” he said. “So I have yet to see any statewide information that shows that crime has increased in the state of Alabama. So I really think one of the first big benefits in the change of criminal justice policy is it has not endangered or decreased public safety in the state of Alabama.”