By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
Tuesday, May 16, 2017, it was announced that the controversial prison construction plan as well as Senate redistricting will be before the House today as time runs out on the 2017, Legislative Session.
The prison plan, SB59, is sponsored by state Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster). Sen. Ward insists that borrowing $845 million to build four new mega prisons is the best option for the troubled Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC). Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the country.
Senator Cam Ward said on social media, “Almost every state is over 100 percent capacity. We were at 193 percent but sentencing reform for us down to around 171 percent but won’t get us but to 165 percent by 2020. This building plan will take us from 165 percent to 125 percent by 2020. Courts have ruled that anything over 137 percent has the potential to be unconstitutional. If we go to 125 percent from a high of 193 percent it would be the largest percentage drop in the US over that period of time and would put us into bottom third in the US as far as percentage of crowding.”
Some opponents of the plan, including at least ten sheriffs, have argued that the state could relieve it’s prison population by relocating prisoners to county jails.
Sen. Ward responded to that suggestion, “The State was sued by the counties several years ago because we had too many inmates in county jails. At press conference by Rep Morrow and Rep Farley two sheriffs who asked to get more State inmates conceded that they were over capacity but wanted State money from DOC to finance more county construction. That seems like a foolish solution to our problem.” Ward added, “Plus more inmates into county jails mean more food money for new inmates which can used for personal profit in some sheriff depts.”
House Democrats have announced their opposition to the plan to build more prisons.
On Tuesday, May 16, Assistant House Minority Leader State Representative Merika Coleman (D-Midfield) announced that she is introducing Legislation that would reduce the State’s prison population through Technical Violator Reform. State Representative Laura Hall (D-Huntsville) cosponsors the Legislation.
Rep. Coleman said, “If we are talking “reform” let’s actually look at reforms. We all know that throwing money at a problem is not the way to solve it so instead of hanging an enormous weight of debt around the State’s neck, let’s actually provide some reforms that will solve the ongoing problems for good. I’m hopeful my colleagues across the aisle will allow this to be part of the discussion at this week’s Judiciary Committee meeting about the prison reform issue.”
Coleman claimed that Technical Violator Reform would end the practice of incarcerating former inmates for technical violations of parole -such as failure to pay a fine or drinking- and also allow inmates to receive credit for time served in jail.
Currently, parolees can end up back in prison for violating the terms of their parole. If arrested by the parole officer for such a technical violation, the time he spends in the jail awaiting transfer to a state facility does not count toward his sentence.
Rep. Coleman claimed that this legislation would remedy both those issues and could reduce the State prison population by approximately 300-400 inmates in the first year alone.
State Representative Allen Farley (R-McCalla), State Auditor Jim Zeigler (R), and gubernatorial candidate and former Morgan County Commissioner Stacy George have all introduced competing prison reform bills. SB59 is based on a plan introduced by former Governor Robert Bentley (R) in his Great State 2020 plan released in 2016. The plan failed in 2016; but was resurrected for 2017.
Supporters warn that without passing this plan there could be a mass release of prisoners as early as next year.
Counties that want to have a mega prison would be required to borrow the funds to build the prison and then would be forced to hand over the deed to ADOC once the county paid off the 30 year bond issue.
SB59 has already passed the Senate. A substitute version of the bill was approved by a House Committee on Tuesday on a 9 to 5 vote.