When Alabama lawmakers passed a $1.3 billion new prison construction package late last year, some were quick to admit new buildings alone wouldn’t solve the state’s prison crisis, and promised to refocus on criminal justice reform legislation in the coming session.
While some reform bills did make it out of both the state House and Senate last session, others stalled out, and the promise of impactful, large-scale reforms fizzled.
Meanwhile, Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons continue to see increases in likely overdose deaths, homicides and suicides.
The U.S. Department of Justice in the federal government’s lawsuit alleged unconstitutional treatment of incarcerated men, including a lack of basic health care and mental health care in understaffed and deadly facilities.
In previously released reports, the Justice Department detailed systemic problems of abuse from guards, corruption, rampant drug use, violence, overcrowding and understaffing in Alabama’s prisons. The DOJ in those reports states that while new prison facilities might help in some areas, new buildings won’t fully address the state’s widespread, deadly problems in its prisons.
Alabama Arise, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that works to advance public policies that improve the lives of those marginalized by poverty, tracked criminal justice legislation introduced during the last session.
“Arise is happy that we were able to get a lot of good criminal justice bills across the finish line, including HB95 by representative Gray that creates a 180-day grace period for people to repay court imposed fines and fees,” said Rebecca Howard, policy and advocacy director for Alabama Arise.
Howard also noted the passage of House Bill 52, which will allow judges to use discretion in the length of someone’s sentence if their probation is revoked.
“So there are good things that have passed that will make a difference, and we know it takes slow progress to make big change, but I think we still need to get to the root of the problem of prison overcrowding and the inhumane conditions that come as a result of that,” Howard said.
Other reform measures approved by lawmakers
Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, introduced Senate Bill 203, which passed out of both chambers and will establish a database of municipal fines and fees. Cities will be required to report that data to the state Administrative Office of Courts and post it online.
House Bill 230, sponsored by Rep. Rolanda Hollis, D-Birmingham, was also passed and will ban the use of waist and leg restraints on any incarcerated individual during pregnancy, labor and delivery or the immediate postpartum period.
Pamela Winn and her nonprofit, RestoreHER, successfully championed anti-shackling legislation in her home state of Georgia and others, and was pivotal in helping get Alabama’s bill approved.
Hollis’s bill initially stopped short of banning the practice altogether, and instead would have only prevented shackling pregnant women during birth and during the six-week period following birth. Winn worked behind the scenes to expand that ban to include pregnant women at all times.
Bills that failed
Bills that would have ended driver’s license suspensions for failing to pay fine and fees failed to pass. House Bill 200, by Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, and Senate Bill 117, by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Montgomery, both failed. Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall opposed the legislation.
Senate Bill 220, sponsored by Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, failed to pass, and would have required that time served while a person is awaiting a hearing for parole violation would be applied retroactively.
Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, sponsored House Bill 55, which failed to pass and would have required each judicial circuit to establish a community corrections program.