On Thursday the long-awaited policy recommendations of Gov Kay Ivey’s bi-partisan Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy were released, which include suggestions on spending, sentencing reform and recidivism reduction.
The group, formed in July and required to release its recommendations before the Legislative session begins Tuesday, didn’t always agree on every topic up for consideration, wrote the group’s chair and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Champ Lyons, but all agreed on the urgent need to act quickly.
Alabama is facing the threat of a federal lawsuit over prison conditions after the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report that found the violence in the overcrowded and understaffed prisons are likely violations of inmates’ Constitutional protections.
“If we try to adhere to the status quo and decline to spend necessary funds to improve the situation now, we risk burdensome remedies imposed by a federal court—remedies that could be far costlier to the State than some of the proposals that have been discussed in our Study Group and that are available to us now at lower cost,” Lyons wrote in the report.
The state’s prison crisis will likely be a central topic during this year’s legislative session. At a budget presentation earlier this month Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn requested a $42 million increase in his department’s budget during Fy 2020, for a total of $563 million.
A central issue with ADOC operations inmate-on-inmate violence, according to the report. The group suggests that lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session should revisit a bill sponsored last year by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would require ADOC to report certain information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Taskforce.
“As the State’s lawmaking body, the Legislature should receive the information it reasonably needs to take a more active role in addressing DOC’s challenges,” Lyons wrote in the report.
The study group also suggests that lawmakers increase ADOC’s budget, and noted specifically the importance of dealing with contraband inside prisons. Drug overdoses have become a regular occurrences in state prisons.
“Regarding contraband detection, in particular, we must further pursue effective means of ensuring that inmates who arrive with addictions get treatment—and that inmates who do not arrive with an addiction do not become addicted while incarcerated,” the report reads.
The study group declined to take on larger sentencing reform measures, and instead suggested that lawmakers consider reinstating a 2001 law that would allow some people serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual offender Act to ask the courts for relief. Prior to the law’s repeal, so-called “Kirby motions” would let some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to appeal their sentences.
“We believe that the Legislature should reinstate Kirby motions so that other nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without parole may have a similar avenue to obtain relief—assuming, of course, that such relief is warranted by the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated,” the study group’s recommendation reads.
Approximately several hundred inmates serving for nonviolent crime convictions imposed before Oct. 1, 2013, would have much lighter sentences were they to be sentenced to the same crimes today, according to the report, which also recommends some previous sentencing reforms be made retroactive.
“As a matter of basic fairness, it would seem appropriate to allow an inmate in this category a chance to go before a judge and ask to be resentenced—assuming, again, that the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated would warrant that relief,” according to the report.
Additionally, the group suggests that lawmakers consider allowing those serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual Offender Act for Class a violent felony convictions, but for crimes in which no one was physically injured, to ask the court to reduce their sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
“As is the case with Kirby reinstatement, no immediate and dramatic reduction in present prison population will be achieved through reforms such as these. But they could result in fairer sentences and some reduction in the prison population without a corresponding threat to public safety—both goals that are worthy of pursuit,” the report reads.
In an effort to reduce the chances that people return to prison after being released, the study group suggests increased funding for in-custody educational programs and early release for those serving for non-violent crimes who complete educational training.
Members also recommended that lawmakers consider offering pre-release supervision to inmates who were sentenced after 2015, the year a law was enacted that required such supervision, which Lyons wrote can help keep a person from returning to prison once freed.
Another stumbling block for formerly incarcerated people is the difficulty of getting government-issued photo ID’s after release, so the group recommends that legislation making that easier.
“By doing so, we can remove a barrier to the successful reintegration of inmates into society—and thereby increase the likelihood that they will become productive, law-abiding citizens,” Lyons wrote.
Formerly incarcerated people on parole often work odd hours, and because parole officers typically work daytime office hours that makes it difficult to meet the demands of the state.
“These parolees thus find themselves in a catch-22: They are trying to better themselves and society by working; but by working, they are more likely to violate the terms of their parole,” Lyons wrote. “To resolve this catch-22, we believe the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles should change the work schedules of its parole officers to provide greater access on nights and weekends. This change could meaningfully reduce the number of parolees returning to prison and at the same time support parolees as they seek to transition to lives of productive citizenship.”
The study group also believes that ADOC should redesignate existing leadership positions to jobs that would oversee recidivism reduction efforts.
An expansion of an existing program aimed at getting county jail inmates help with mental health problems could keep them from being re-arrested, the study group’s report found. Called the Stepping Up Initiative, the program provides money for local governments to hire mental health case managers.
The last recommendation in the report is for further study of alternative courts, such as drug courts and pretrial diversion programs, both of which can help divert people from entering the prison system.
“There are several alternative courts and diversion programs across the State that work extremely well and help divert people from further illegal activity,” Lyons wrote. “But in many places, these programs are unavailable, underfunded, or simply inaccessible. There are also serious concerns about the “pay-to-play” aspect of some of these programs.”
Study group members were unable, however, to come up with specific solutions to address the need for expansions of these programs, Lyons wrote, in part because the many programs operate under various entities, in both state and local governments.
“We therefore recommend legislation to require better data collection by government agencies administering these programs. We also recommend the establishment of a legislative study commission to dig deeper into the specific issues surrounding community corrections so that this issue can be comprehensively addressed in the 2021 legislative session,” Lyons wrote.