Editorial: Alabama Prison Reform Finally in Sight, But Funding Looms

The Birmingham News

By Editorial Board

After decades of looking the other way while prison populations swelled and conditions deteriorated, the Alabama Legislature took a major step toward meaningful prison reform this week.

The Alabama Justice Reinvestment Act, designed to reform sentencing and parole systems enough to cut 4,500 inmates from our shockingly overcrowded prisons, passed both chambers and is headed to Gov. Robert Bentley’s desk to be signed into law.

Combined with a plan to add another 2,000 beds to existing Alabama prisons, the measures are expected to bring the prison capacity down from 186 percent to about 140 percent over five years.

That’s a great start to reforming Alabama’s troubled prison system, where our reporting has detailed inhumane living conditions and prisoner abuse that resulted in Justice Department scrutiny and two federal lawsuits. The hope is that the state’s good-faith effort to acknowledge its prison problems and deal with them will stem any federal court desire to hand down mandates.

We applaud the Legislature for doing the right thing, for realizing that, despite the possibility of political backlash, doing nothing about prisons was not an option. We particularly applaud Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who staked his political reputation on this reform plan, and pushed it aggressively and efficiently through a Legislature that needed a lot of convincing.

Bentley also deserves applause, for appointing the Prison Reform Task Force, making a prison reform bill a priority, and choosing Ward as his point man. He also heeded our call for new leadership for the prison system, replacing longtime prisons commissioner Kim Thomas with retired Air Force Col. Jeff Dunn.

Dunn, on the job since April 1, hasn’t come forth with any reform plans as yet, but we’re hopeful that his fresh eyes will bring fresh ideas and discipline to a dysfunctional system that badly needs strong leadership.

Now comes the hard part, finding the money. The Legislature continues to wrangle with a $290 million short-term General Fund budget hole and a $700 long-term deficit.

Projected to cost $23 million to $26 million per year, the plan would shorten maximum sentences for some nonviolent crimes and calls for more supervision for parolees and inmates leaving prison in an effort to reduce recidivism, among many other provisions.

The plan includes hiring 100 more parole officers and about 25 parole staff.

Adding more beds will cost an additional $12 million per year.

The state’s General Fund, the source of revenue for prisons, is already the subject of much debate. Multiple revenue options are on the table: Gov. Bentley’s $541 million package of new taxes; Sen. Del Marsh’s $400 million plan for a state lottery and casino-style gambling at four greyhound track sites;and the House GOP caucus plan that combines $150 million in taxes and a gaming compact with the Poarch Creek Band of Indians, who would provide a $250 million up-front payments.

The alternative to new revenue would be deep cuts to every state agency, including prisons, that would render the prison reform bill moot and exacerbate the problem by closing some prisons and squeezing more inmates into already unmanageably overcrowded conditions.

While we need a long-term, thoughtful solution to Alabama’s budget situation, some combination of taxes and gambling is probably the only way to avoid cuts that would be disastrous for prisons and troubling for other state functions.

However the Legislature chooses to deal with the revenue shortfall, the prison reforms passed this session must be fully funded. Otherwise, expect the federal courts to order even more expansive and expensive changes that take control of the situation out of our hands