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Will the Legislature address prison overcrowding before session’s end?

Rep. Jim Hill’s bill which would give judges more discretion in sentencing faces an uphill climb in the state Senate.

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State Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, prefiled HB63 in January. If passed, the bill would allow judges to issue split sentences, suspending part of convicted defendants’ sentences and placing them on probation instead. It could also potentially help reduce prison overcrowding.

The state of Alabama has faced significant criticism for the persistent overcrowding of its prisons for years, including an ongoing lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice first filed in 2020.

Hill has previously criticized plans to replace old prisons with new mega-prisons in order to address overcrowding, saying that he was “questioning how we’re going to close facilities when we end up with a situation that we’re going to have the same overcrowding percentage.” By allowing judges to reduce sentences of 30 years or less at their discretion, his split sentencing bill might help alleviate prison overcrowding.

Hill also views HB63 as an opportunity to help convicted individuals reintegrate into society after incarceration. A 2023 report from the Virginia Department of Corrections placed Alabama’s three-year recidivism rate, or the percentage of people who are reincarcerated within three years of their release, at 29.2 percent.

“Split sentences give a judge the discretion to sentence an individual to a certain period of a number of years and then cause that individual to serve a part of that number and then keep the individual on a prohibition type status following release,” Hill said. “So it gives the judge the ability to try to transition the individual back into society while still having the ability to sanction the individual.”

A former judge himself, Hill said: “I like judges having discretion. I think judges know the people under their care better than anyone else does.”

Hill introduced an almost identical bill in the 2023 session, HB39, which died in the House Judiciary Committee without ever seeing a vote.

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This session, HB63 made it out of the House Judiciary Committee and was easily passed by the state House with a vote of 60 in favor, 34 against after some minor amendments. But to make it to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk and be signed into law, it still has to be passed by the state Senate.

“It’s out of the House,” Hill said. “I hope it gets on the floor of the Senate. I believe if it does, it will pass.” 

But there are just three days left in the legislative session.

With hot-button issues like prohibiting discussion of LGBTQ+ topics in eighth grade and below, preventing sexual education material from being sexually explicit, and making librarians subject to obscenity laws all still awaiting Senate approval, it seems unlikely that Hill’s bill will see the Senate floor before the session ends.

Chance Phillips is a reporting intern at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected].

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