Alabama Poised to Establish Prison Reform Task Force

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama state senators hope their recent approval of a new task force will help determine the cause of the state’s growing prison overcrowding problem, and offer potential solutions. The resolution to develop the task force was sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward R-Alabaster, and, if also passed by the House, will create a 26-member group referred to as the Prison Reform Task Force.

Prison overcrowding is becoming a common theme across the United States, and, following the Senate’s approval of the bill, Ward referenced several other states that have taken similar steps. “They did this in Texas, they did this in Kentucky, they’ve done this in Arkansas,” said Ward. “All conservative, Republican states, but they did it in those states, and those states adopted those recommendations.”
Alabama’s own prison population has been steadily climbing in recent years, and Sen. Ward has likened the state’s bulging prisons to a box of dynamite. A September 2013 count by the Alabama Department of Corrections put the state’s incarcerated population at well over 25,000 inmates. However, state facilities were designed for a population roughly half that size. Adding to the problem is the state’s 12.1 to 1 inmate-to-correctional officer ratio, one of the country’s highest, as well as the fact that Alabama spends less than half of the national per-day average on health care. The Equal Justice Initiative Reports that the state spends an average of just $26 per inmate per day on health care services.

In October 2013 the state decided to change up its system in hopes of reserving prison beds for more dangerous offenders, and announced plans to be more selective in terms of sentencing. The plan was developed by the state appointed Sentencing Commission under Executive Director Bennet Wright. Under these new terms, the state has been diverting non-violent criminals, such as those convicted of theft, property crimes and less serious drug offenses, away from prison. Though victims’ advocates and state prosecutors opposed the step, saying it will result in more jury trials and delays, proponents point to the states overflowing correctional facilities and shortage of staff.

To address these myriad issues, Ward has promised “a broad based and very diverse task force,” which will likely comprise a mix of legislators, prosecutors, victims’ advocates, state prison officials and other governor appointees. Ward anticipates the task force will spend roughly eight months reviewing the prison situation. The group is slated to share its findings with the legislature on the 15th day of the legislative session in the 2015 regular session, which would fall sometime in the spring of next year.