By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Tuesday, June 10, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) announced in a press conference that he was launching the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a comprehensive study of the State’s criminal justice system that the State hopes will identify ways to implement more cost effective criminal justice policies. The Council of State Governments (CSG) will lead Alabama’s effort with the JRI process.
Governor Bentley said, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is an opportunity for Alabama to examine the criminal justice system in order to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety. The number of inmates incarcerated in Alabama has significantly increased over the last decade. With the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we have an opportunity to examine areas to maximize efforts in the criminal justice system that will benefit our Department of Corrections. By participating in the study, we will have a detailed understanding of drivers behind Alabama’s prison population growth and identify ways to reduce growth.”
Governor Bentley named State Senator Cam Ward (R) from Alabaster as the Chairman of Alabama’s Joint Prison Reform Task Force. The task force will be composed of government, law enforcement officials, victim’s advocates and policy makers from both political parties in an attempt to identify better practices in ways that maintain and improve public safety in a more cost-effective manner.
Senator Ward said, “I am honored to be named as Chairman to the Joint Prison Reform Task Force. It is well known that the Alabama prison system is financially strained and overcrowded. If we don’t go through this process to reform and re-invest in the system, the federal government will come in and mandate we release inmates. We must push our work to answer three essential questions: How to cut crime, how to lower victimization and how to reduce recidivism?”
The number of people incarcerated in Alabama has increased significantly over the last decade. Alabama prisons currently operate at approximately 190 percent of capacity, housing over 25,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold approximately 13,000. The cost of corrections comes out of Alabama’s struggling General Fund, which has been hit hard by rapidly increasing costs of the state’s troubled Medicaid program.
In 2012 the State rejected a massive proposed increase in the size and scope of the Medicaid program under Obamacare, because there is simply not enough money in the General Fund to pay for the State’s required match.
The primary purpose of having a state government is to provide courts to settle disputes and prisons to punish people that won’t abide by society’s laws. However, the massive expansion of things that government does has meant that courts and prisons increasingly get a smaller share of state revenues. The corrections system has struggled under the budget constraints that it has been under since the economy crashed in 2008. Alabama prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and the State spends far less per prisoner than any other state. Most experts believe that the preferred solution would be a massive bond issue to fund construction of new prisons, but politicians and the public alike do not seem enthusiastic about raising the revenues necessary to do that.
Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said participating in the JRI is a unique opportunity to focus on making Alabama’s criminal justice system more efficient.
The Council of State Governments (CSG), a part of The Pew Charitable Trusts, will provide free assistance to the state via their Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The justice center has worked with 18 states already. Last year, the organization helped to address prison problems in Michigan and Idaho, where a sweeping reform bill was recently signed into law. The State of Alabama is being pressured by the Obama Justice Department to address problems with the corrections system, including an alleged history of sexual abuse of female prisoners at the Tutwiler prison for women by members of the Corrections Department.
Ward said, “We brought in CSG because they have the experience and know-how to help alleviate our prison problems. Several states have been through this, and as Texas Governor Rick Perry said at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee, ‘You want to talk about real conservative governance, shut a prison down.’”
Ward said, “One thing we will not do is release dangerous criminals, or allow Alabama to be soft on crime, but we can be smarter about crime. All other options are on the table at this point.”
The Joint Task Prison Reform Task Force was formed during the 2014 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature. The first meeting, a presentation of CSG’s findings was held Tuesday in Montgomery. Several more meetings will be held over the next six months, and the Task Force will recommend legislation to be brought before the 2015 Regular Session of The Alabama Legislature.
Thomas said, “No one strategy or group alone is going to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system. In order to make significant and long-lasting improvements, it is going to take a host of stakeholders and partners working together on dynamic, evidence-based solutions. Alabama’s participation in this Justice Reinvestment Initiative represents its willingness to devote the time and energy necessary to make those improvements. The Alabama Department of Corrections is pleased to be a part of this process and eager to work with the other participants toward transforming the state’s overall criminal justice system.”
Sen. Ward said, “This is the biggest challenge our State has ever faced. Alabama has to start being not only tough on crime but we have to be smart on crime. This effort represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to accomplish this goal. This effort has succeeded in other states and they saved money and reformed their systems at the same time.”
Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project said, “Alabama has an unprecedented opportunity to get more from its investment in public safety out of its own system.”
Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Denise E. O’Donnell said, “By launching this project and establishing an inter-branch task force, Alabama becomes the 21st state to take important steps through the JRI toward creating new justice reform policies grounded in research and state-specific data that will improve community safety.”
Chief Justice Roy Moore said, “It is no secret that Alabama’s prison system is in a crisis. The struggles our state faces with prison population, sentencing proportionality, and victim restitution strain not only the resources of our corrections system, but also our overworked court system. The judiciary interfaces every day with criminal offenders on either side of the prison bars, so I look forward to working with leaders from all branches of our state government, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to improve our prison system. Together I believe we can more perfectly fulfill the purpose of Alabama’s Constitution: ‘to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.’”
Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R) from Auburn said, “At a time when the Federal government continues to showcase its inability to work together, in Alabama we’re proving that every branch of government can come together to work toward a common goal. Participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process is a crucial and important step forward in finding specific, data-based solutions to the challenges facing our criminal justice system. We look forward to hearing the policy recommendations that will come from this effort and we will continue to work diligently with all entities involved to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system and overall public safety for all Alabamians.”
Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said, “This partnership provides a unique opportunity for three branches of government to fully examine the challenges in our criminal justice system and determine the best path forward. I appreciate the leadership of Governor Bentley, my Senate colleague Cam Ward and others involved for their hard work and willingness to address these issues.”
Mike Hubbard said on facebook, “It was an honor joining Gov. Robert Bentley in announcing the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative is designed to study more cost-effective criminal justice policies. Our commitment to reducing state spending has never been stronger.”
The State is under enormous pressure to deal with this situation before Obama’s Justice Department asks a Federal court to allow them to take over the system, like they did in California. Critics of this ‘reform’ effort fear that the public will face much higher crime rates as the State releases more hardened criminals into Alabama’s communities.