By Mike Cason
The Alabama Legislature today overwhelmingly approved a bill intended to reduce overcrowding in Alabama prisons.
The House of Representatives passed the bill 100-5 today.
The Senate, which had passed the bill in April, concurred with changes made by the House in a 27-0 vote.
“This is not the final step,” said the sponsor, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “This is the first step in a long path forward.
“I’m just very proud our state has finally taken a meaningful step forward in prison reform.”
The bill goes to Gov. Robert Bentley, who supports the prison reform effort.
“Today’s passage of SB67 is a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama’s criminal justice system,” Bentley said in a statement.
He said he planned to sign the bill after a full legal review.
The Senate first approved the bill, sponsored by Ward, in April.
Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, who handled the bill in the House, said the plan would reduce the prison population by 4,500 inmates over five years.
As of February, the Alabama Department of Corrections had 24,678 inmates in facilities designed for 13,318.
The bill would reduce penalties for some nonviolent property and drug crimes.
It would create a new Class D felony designation for some nonviolent offenses.
It would place new emphasis on parole and supervision of offenders to divert some from prison and to keep others from going back.
A related bill calls for use of $60 million in bond money to expand prison capacity by about 1,500 to 2,000 beds.
The House passed that bill 102-0 today. It goes to the Senate.
Ward said the bond money could be used to add space at existing facilities, rather than building a new prison. He said the Department of Corrections should decide where the capacity is added.
Jones said the state might consider adding facilities near the counties that produce the most inmates. Jones said 10 counties account for 59 percent of prisoners.
The combination of the reforms and added space would drop the prison population to just under 140 percent of designed capacity over five years, Ward said.
Ward said the number is a good target because federal courts forced California to reduce its population to 137 percent.
“That’s kind of been the benchmark for every state,” Ward said.
Ward and others have said Alabama is at risk of federal intervention if it does not reduce overcrowding.
“If we do nothing, you can guarantee this,” Ward said. “A federal government or a federal officer is going to do it for us.
“And we should be ashamed as elected officials if we allow that to happen.”
The reforms, not including the construction, are estimated to cost about $23 million to $26 million a year.
Some of that money would be used to hire about 100 parole officers and about 25 parole staff.
Funding for the reforms would come through the General Fund.
Ward said fixing Alabama’s prison system will take time but that the bill is a major step.
“No one is getting released early,” he said. “However, how we deal with inmates going forward as well as how we deal with inmates who are already on parole and their supervision will be dealt with and handled differently.”
Alabama prisons have been overcrowded for many years.
The problem has drawn more attention in the last year.
The Department of Justice issued a report last year finding that inmates at Julia Tutwiler Prison were subject to sexual abuse and misconduct by male officers.
The Southern Poverty Law Center filed a lawsuit last year claiming the medical and mental health care provided to inmates does not meet constitutional standards.
The Equal Justice Initiative filed a lawsuit seeking relief from what it said was cruel and unusual punishment caused by poor leadership, inadequate security and unsafe conditions at St. Clair Correctional Facility.
Fifteen inmates were treated after a riot at the St. Clair prison last month, and three inmates were killed there over a 10-month period in 2013 and 2014.
Concerns about prisons led to all three branches of state government participating in a Prison Reform Task Force that adopted a set of recommendations that formed the basis of much of Ward’s bill.
The Task Force relied on research from the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which has helped other states with crowded prisons.
The Task Force is expected to continue its work.
Susan Watson, executive director of the ACLU of Alabama, issued a statement applauding the legislation.
“The passage of this legislation shows that Alabama acknowledges there is a serious over-incarceration problem in our prisons and that it is dedicated to fixing it,” Watson said. “The ACLU of Alabama is happy to support this development. We look forward to the next steps.”
Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, delayed a vote on the bill in the House earlier today by asking that the 130-plus page bill be read at length first.
Rogers has been upset over the Legislature passing a bill to make changes to the Birmingham Water Works Board.