Lawmakers tackling Ala.'s prison crisis with 5 bills, several initiatives

The legislation comes in the wake of last year's report on the Department of Justice's investigation into the state's prisons

By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The plan for Gov. Kay Ivey and state lawmakers to tackle Alabama’s prison crisis is taking shape with Thursday’s announcement of five bills and several other initiatives.

The proposals are separate from the governor’s ongoing plan to replace some of the state’s aging prisons with three new prisons for men.

The bills announced this week follow the recommendations of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, which held public hearings last year and issued a report in January stressing the urgent need for action and an emphasis on prisoner rehabilitation to reduce recidivism.

The legislation comes in the wake of last year’s report on the Department of Justice’s investigation into Alabama’s prisons. DOJ alleged that conditions in men’s prisons violated the Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishments because of the levels of violence, rapes, weapons, drugs, overcrowding, and understaffing.

The prison system faces federal court orders to increase staffing and improve mental health care as part of a lawsuit filed on behalf of inmates, a nearly six-year-old case that overlaps many of the issues in the DOJ investigation.

Senate Bill 226 would require the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire a deputy commissioner of rehabilitation who would be responsible for developing, implementing, and improving programs to reduce recidivism. It would require the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to appoint a deputy director of rehabilitation with the same goals for parolees.

Senate Bill 244 would require all inmates approaching the end of their sentences to be released to the supervision of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles before their sentence ends, for periods ranging from 3 months to two years, depending on the length of the sentence. The intent is to help inmates adjust to life outside prison. The Legislature passed a bill in 2015 requiring such supervised early release but it only applied to inmates sentenced after that. The new bill would apply the requirement to all inmates nearing the end of their sentences.

House Bill 323 would require the Alabama Department of Corrections to submit to the Legislature quarterly reports to strengthen oversight of the prison system. The reports would include:

  • The size and composition of the inmate population and correctional officer staffing levels.
  • Data on inmate participation in educational, vocational, religious, and reentry programs.
  • A listing of all litigation involving the ADOC or its employees.
  • Data on sexual abuse incidents reported and the status of investigations into each.
  • Data on inmate deaths and the cause, including autopsy reports.
  • Data on cell phones, weapons, and drugs recovered in prisons.

House Bill 329 would make some nonviolent offenders in prison eligible for new sentences. It would retroactively apply sentencing guidelines that took effect Oct. 1, 2013 to inmates sentenced before that date. The Study Group’s report says several hundred inmates would be affected, citing information from the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

House Bill 342 would require the state to provide a Social Security card, birth certificate, and non-driver ID to inmates being released from custody to make sure they have the identity documents needed to get jobs. Current law requires only the Social Security card.

Senate Joint Resolution 25 would create the Study Commission on Pre-Trial Services and Alternative Courts, which would seek ways to make those programs more uniform and accessible to people, including the poor, and examine their effectiveness. Officials who spoke at the Study Group’s hearings said some offenders who would be good candidates for those diversion programs are locked out because they can’t pay the fees.

Increased funding: The governor requested a $563 million from the General Fund for prisons next year, a 9% increase over this year. That follows substantial increases over the last few years and would be 41% more than the budget five years ago. The governor is also requesting a $4.2 million increase in prison education funding, a 33% increase over this year.

The bills were introduced this week. The Legislature has 11 weeks remaining in the session to address them.

As for new prisons, the Ivey administration is awaiting proposals from companies that would finance and build the prisons and lease them to the state. The total cost is unknown but the plan calls for the leases to be capped at a total of about $78 million a year.

ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn has said new prisons will be better equipped to offer education, vocational, and treatment programs.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said Thursday that he expects lawmakers to address the building plans in some way before the end of the legislative session this spring. The governor does not need legislative approval for the new prisons but Marsh said the Legislature still has a vital role.

“What will have to go through the Legislature is the dollars to support that,” Marsh said. “And we’re trying to figure out now what is that actual cost. How much is savings, how much is new costs to the General Fund?”

The Ivey administration has said money saved by closing old prisons can cover the lease payments.

The DOJ report noted the poor conditions of Alabama’s prisons while also saying that new facilities alone would not solve the problems.

Overcrowding in prisons has gotten worse since the DOJ report, partly because of the partial closing of Holman Correctional Facility announced in January. Draper Correctional Facility closed in 2018. Both prison closings were blamed on deterioration.

As of December, before the partial closing of Holman, Alabama prisons had 21,000 inmates in facilities designed for 12,400, an occupancy rate of 170%. The governor’s Study Group said the state is at risk of a federal court ordering release of inmates, which happened in California in 2012.

Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition that includes former inmates, spouses of inmates, and other prison reform advocates, has been a steady presence in the State House at the Study Group meetings and legislative hearings.

The coalition released its own recommendations, and there is some agreement with the governor’s plan. For example, the coalition recommended making the 2013 sentencing guidelines retroactive, overhauling prison diversion and community corrections programs, increasing oversight of the Department of Corrections, and providing help with identification documents for inmates being released.

But the coalition issued a statement Friday saying the governor’s proposals fall short of what’s needed to address the crisis.

“The Alabama prison system is at a breaking point. The legislation introduced to date provides a step forward but lacks the urgency the crisis demands. ... This is a time for bold action to reduce Alabama’s prison population; not half-measures that keep Alabama at risk of a federal takeover. Without meaningful reforms that address sentencing and the conditions of Alabama’s prisons, the state will continue to fail its people."

The Alabamians for Fair Justice coalition says at least 28 inmates died due from homicide, suicide or overdose in ADOC custody last year.

The ADOC says there were 11 homicides and nine suicides in fiscal year 2019, which ended Sept. 30, 2019. The ADOC does not have confirmed numbers for overdose deaths, spokeswoman Samantha Rose said in an email.

Among the coalition’s recommendations:

  • Fixing Alabama’s habitual offender law, which the coalition says results in hundreds of inmates serving life sentences for crimes that did not involve homicide and enhanced sentences for drug and property crimes.
  • Modifying marijuana possession laws, which result in felony convictions for almost 1,000 Alabamians a year, according to the coalition, costing them jobs, drivers licenses and housing.
  • Increasing the threshold of property value that makes theft a felony.
  • Modifying other drug possession laws.
  • Redefining some crimes that are now considered violent offenses under Alabama law, including drug trafficking and burglary of an empty building.

Differences of opinion over the definition of a violent crime came up last week at a meeting of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which will handle the prison reform legislation. Amanda Vinson, 42, a mother of four from Oxford, spoke to the senators and urged them to revise the habitual offender law.

Vinson said her husband, a repeat offender, received a life sentence with the possibility of parole after 10 years for marijuana trafficking but has never committed a violent crime. Vinson said she was not arguing that her husband did not deserve prison time but said the penalty was excessive. Drug trafficking is classified as a violent crime in Alabama.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Sheffield, told Vinson he did not agree that drug trafficking was a crime that didn’t hurt people. Vinson responded that she respected the senator’s opinion but noted that marijuana is legal in some states and reiterated that said she did not consider her husband to be a violent offender. She told the committee about the violent conditions in prison and her fears for her husband’s safety. She said her husband was stabbed in the leg trying to break up a fight.

“My husband has been gone for thee years,” Vinson said. “Our 5-year-old daughter doesn’t know her daddy.”

In an interview after the meeting, Vinson said, “Bottom line, in my opinion, is that if you never hurt anybody, if you don’t have a victim, you should not be given a life sentence with or a life sentence without parole.”

John Vinson, who is at Staton Correctional Facility, had previous convictions for distribution of a controlled substance, possession of a controlled substance, burglary, and marijuana possession, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections inmate database.


©2020 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

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