Alabama is reforming its criminal justice system because a complex web of interconnected problems left it near implosion—a mess of spent money, wasted lives and broken families, reported the Daily Signal of the Heritage Foundation.
As Alabama becomes the latest conservative state of the Deep South to reform its criminal justice system, the challenge, state leaders and outside experts say, may be the greatest yet.
Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the nation. Worse than California, where the prison system also was nearing 200 percent capacity when a federal court order forced the state to immediately reduce the population to 137.5 percent capacity.
The U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the decision, ruling that conditions in California’s overcrowded prisons violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on cruel and unusual punishment.
“We don’t want the federal government ruling our prison system, and we are dangerously close to becoming another California,” says Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward, the Republican chairman of the Judiciary Committee who sponsored the reform legislation.
“We dare defend our rights—that’s our state motto,” Ward says. “I’ve toured every prison in the state, and I can tell you my biggest concern is this: I want public safety first and foremost. And second, at the end of the day, why release a bunch of inmates because we ran a sorry system, when we can improve the system at a small cost without letting a lot of nasty people out? That’s the direction I saw us going.”
In late June, one month after Alabama followed Texas, Georgia and South Carolina in passing a bipartisan plan to relieve prison overcrowding, The Daily Signal spent a week on the ground to explore the state’s criminal justice system.
The visit came at an awkward time, when criminal justice officials act as if the plan will proceed even though they can’t begin to implement it yet.
Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, a Republican, signed the reform bill into law on May 21, but the plan still is not funded.
During the week of Aug. 3, the Republican-controlled state legislature is slated to interrupt summer recess to convene for a special session. Ward, who says lawmakers must come up with an additional $12 million to bolster the $394-million prison budget, insists he is “very confident” the plan will get funded.
The reform measure, which is supposed to go into effect in January and take five years to implement, is expected to cut Alabama’s prison population by more than 4,200 (a 30-percent reduction), avert more than $380 million in future costs, and provide supervision for every single inmate released from prison.
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