MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Sizeable changes are coming to Alabama’s criminal justice system and its prisons. The reforms were ordered by the U.S. Department of Justice after an investigation determined the state’s prisons are so dangerous it’s depriving prisoners of their basic civil rights.
Lawmakers expect to be called back for a special legislative session this fall to consider a number of solutions to meet DOJ’s demands. The state's been given a limited opportunity to pass and implement significant reforms or face federal receivership.
The chief mandate is to reduce the overall prison population by 15 to 18 percent, which roughly accounts for 3,000 prisoners. Lawmakers must decide if they will look to a combination of short and long-term solutions to promptly bring the corrections system down to size and manage that population long-term.
WSFA 12 News spoke in-depth with Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, to discuss the policies lawmakers will consider and what it could mean for your tax dollars and community.
Short-term solutions will expeditiously pare down the population but will require infrastructure that currently does not exist.
Wright says you can expect lawmakers to debate retroactive sentencing measures, likely the strongest short-term consideration.
“The only way you get any large-scale relief is retroactive application of some policy,” Wright explained. “If you don’t have that, you are going to see a more gradual decline.”
Wright looked to presumptive sentencing guidelines passed in 2013 as an example of retroactive application, "for those individuals that were convicted of a crime, or would have had restrictions placed on them if they were sentenced after 2013,” he said.
The state’s court system is overloaded. A mechanism to assess prisoners who qualify for retroactive sentencing and a re-entry program would be part of that discussion.
“You will probably see some proposals put out to try to ease that,” Wright stated. “That will be front and center as one of the policies that will be discussed.”
In 2017, Louisiana passed a sweeping Justice Reinvestment Act on the notion that the state was overspending on a flawed prison system that didn’t benefit overall safety. The multi-pronged approach helped the state shed the title of the largest prison population in the country.
One year after the reforms were implemented, the prison population was reduced by 7.6 percent. Specifically, Louisiana dramatically decreased the number of people it was sending to prison by doing away with mandatory minimums for low-level, non-violent offenses and identifying nearly 2,000 non-violent prisoners who were eligible for early release under a new “good time” provision.
According to information released by the state, 120 of those early releases were sent back to prison due to parole violations or new offenses.
While Louisiana has quickly reduced its population, the policies on the table aren’t globally comparable. In fact, we found Alabama stands alone in the current reform demands.
“Alabama didn’t continue to build prisons or maintain their physical infrastructure the same way most other states did,” Wright explained. “Alabama is a storm of lack of building, lack of funding, and a lack of reform until fairly recently. And it’s trying to address all issues at one time. That has never happened anywhere across the nation.”
Long-term management of Alabama’s prison population will require significant changes with no easy solution in sight. The 2015 Justice Reinvestment Act brought sweeping reform to lower-level drug and property offenses. That reform, coupled with the sentencing guidelines, aided in shifting ADOC’s capacity from 198 percent to 155 percent.
The overall prison population quickly transitioned to mostly violent offenders. To date, Alabama still has some of the most punitive laws on the books for violent offenses and lengthy prison sentences. With fewer property and drug offenders in prison, lawmakers must now reckon with the violent crime population.
“Possibly looking at additional proposals about what to do with the violent populations - whether it’s those who have been in there for a significant amount of time or lower level offenders as well,” Wright suggested. “If you restrict the conversation to non-violent offenders only you have the ability to put yourself right back in the same overcrowding population with the completely violent population.”
Wright believes one of the easiest paths to alleviate long-term overpopulation would involve decreasing the felony threshold for property crimes. The problem: how to balance repeat non-violent offenders with low-level violent offenders.
“There’s always a legitimate argument that says someone has 20 non-violent convictions and they are completely restricted from any punitive sanctions - where someone on the lower level on the violent spectrum can commit a single offense where they punished harshly,” Wright noted.
The decisions are consequential, and they must be made in short order.
“It has to be some sort of relief that is fairly substantial,” Wright stated. “I don’t think a reduction of 300 or 400 [prisoners] is going to satisfy. I think you’re looking at a larger scale.”
PRISON AND COMMUNITY-BASED PROGRAMS
The successful outcome of any of these proposals rests on the ability to match defendants with programs to help them become a successful member of society. This programming is costly and many aspects would have to be created from the ground up in Alabama.
“Community-based alternatives gets the least amount of attention, that’s very unfortunate,” Wright said. “Alabama has to do a better job of offering community-based programs including mental health, substance abuse, and vocational training.”
Wright says it’s difficult to imagine any successful implementation of the criminal justice reform scenarios discussed without programs.
“If you divert someone from prison or someone re-enters society without a wealth of resources available, that’s not a good scenario for people who have been part of the system,” he said.
If the programs are established, the state would need to be accessible to everyone in need. It would require an assessment tool to determine whether people were receiving the proper services and if those services are beneficial.
“You’re talking about implementation level at 67 counties,” according to Wright. “That absolutely has to be a very large piece of the puzzle solving the problem.”
Looking to productive programs in other states is difficult. Many programs, good or bad, are not supported by evidence-based research. Shoring up those programs with empirical data is something the Federal Interagency Council on Crime Prevention and Recidivism is currently working toward. It’s part of an effort to make recommendations to states for reforms to prevent crimes, reduce recidivism, and foster re-entry.
Alabama has historically underfunded its corrections system. In fact, finding the right reforms could be less taxing than securing the funding for costly changes, much-needed programs, and infrastructure.
Wright says Alabama doesn't have the luxury of putting this decision off another year, nor can it fiscally afford federal receivership.
“The danger is Alabama loses control of its own budget,” Wright warned. “That would jeopardize everyone who’s funded out of the General Fund Budget. “I’m not advocating throwing money at a problem, but money has to be part of the answer.”
Discussions over ways to generate funding for this sweeping overhaul are underway ahead of the pending special legislative session.
Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said in an interview earlier this week the lottery will likely be back on the table.
“The question is are we going to be able to come up with more income or revenue or are we going to have to take from other agencies to get this done," Marsh asked.
The Justice Reinvestment Act in Louisiana shored up around $14 million after its first year of implementation. The state is using that money to divide among re-entry services, prison programs, and victim services.
While Alabama could replicate a similar structure, it still must set aside annual funding for prisons and community programs outside any forecasted savings.
The clock is ticking. If lawmakers return to Montgomery in October and don’t reach a conclusive decision on how to move forward, it could be problematic.
“The state probably has until the end of the calendar year to try to figure something out,” Wright stated. “If there’s not a firm proposal by the end of the year, I would be concerned.”