UPDATED: MONTGOMERY — Gov. Kay Ivey’s prison study group held its last public session Tuesday, with lawmakers on the body calling for more resources to keep potential inmates out of the state’s overcrowded, understaffed and violence-plagued prison system, as well as other steps to reduce the existing population and better equip those who leave the system to never return.
“I’ve got to come up with a report that says, ‘This is where we have unanimity, this is where we have differences of opinion,” said former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons. At Ivey’s request, Lyons has chaired the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy. He was scheduled to meet with Ivey on Tuesday afternoon. Lyons said the group’s report should be complete and made public in a week or 10 days.
In an email this week, Lyons said the report was being drafted. “We are working to get the report into the public domain as soon as practicable,” Lyons said.
The study group, whose members also included state Finance Director Kelly Butler, Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and a stand-in for Attorney Gen. Steve Marshall, began its work last summer. Charged with helping the state better address the prison system’s problems, it has reviewed major litigation facing the system, visited some of the state’s prisons and discussed the shortage of correctional officers.
In December, the group listened to accounts of violence against inmates and heard calls for more resources to rehabilitate inmates and help those who are released make a successful transition to civilian life. A suit over mental health treatment in the prisons is still before U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in Montgomery, and hanging over the system is a U.S. Justice Department report issued last year that found corruption, violence, sexual abuse, poor management, deteriorating buildings and other shortcomings. A federal takeover of the prisons, which has happened in the past, is something the state wants to avoid.
The most recent statistical report on the Department of Corrections website, issued in September, lists the population in the state’s penal institutions as 20,953, higher than the total a year ago but lower than the total in September 2017. Most of the system’s facilities are holding far more inmates than they were built to hold.
Ivey has proposed to build three new prisons, and four firms have qualified to submit construction proposals to the state.
In Tuesday’s meeting, held at the State House, state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, one of three senators on the study group and one of the Legislature’s leading prison experts, told the audience, “You wouldn’t put your dog” into some existing prisons, but new construction is “about 10 percent of the answer” to the system’s problems.
“We can solve this if we invest in long-term solutions,” Ward said. Those solutions include providing more mental health, education and rehabilitation services in the prisons and managing more offenders through community corrections and alternative sentencing or diversion programs that provide rehabilitation and other services while keeping offenders out of prison.
“If we can get someone help before they get into the ‘system,’ as we say, and correct their behavior the rest of their lives, that’s a really, really good thing,” added state Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, another senator on the panel. “Will we be able to do that 100% of the time? No. But can we do it some percentage of the time? Absolutely, positively yes, and we need to focus on that.”
No More Pay-to-Play
But Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, one of the study group’s three House members, said fees associated with the programs can be a hardship for many offenders. Rowe said a community corrections program in her area is privately run, and its multiple fees strain the incomes of economically stressed offenders.
“It’s a cycle that is very difficult to pay your way out of,” Rowe said.
Some of the programs “keep people out of the system, they keep people from going back,” Ward said. “But … it cannot be a pay-to-play system. It can’t be, ‘Well, I have money therefore I can pay for it,’ ‘I don’t, therefore I have to go to jail.’ It has to be a system funded by the state, and that’s not going to be free. It’s not going to be cheap. But if we’re serious about it, we’ll step up to the plate and do it.” The lawmakers seemed favorable to Lyons’ suggestion that the Legislature should set up a commission to review the situation.
In an email this week, Lyons said the programs need uniform standards, but “solutions in that area are complicated by the fact that pretrial diversion and specialty courts are each separate programs operating under independent branches of state government, the executive and judicial.
“And, add to that the numerosity of separate local entities which is a byproduct of having 41 judicial circuits,” Lyons said.
State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, who is on the panel, said every offender should pay the same amount – an “affordable and fair” one – to access diversion programs.
“It doesn’t matter if you’re rich, or poor,” England said. “You can get in, get out and be treated the same way.”
Meanwhile, England said corrections officials should be required to give lawmakers more frequent, timely and thorough reports on what is happening in the prisons.
“You can’t hide, you can’t go months without explaining what is going on, you also can’t go months without responding to allegations or reports,” England said. “I can’t inspire confidence in people that their loved one — even if they’ve committed a crime — are treated humanely if I’m not getting constant reports about what (is) going (on) inside the facilities. We should never find out how horrific our conditions are within our facilities from a federal investigation.”
Lyons, reflecting on the meeting, said, “It wasn’t an accident to lead with rehabilitation and education on the list of things that we talked about. That’s so important. It’s just penny wise and pound foolish if you don’t stress the need to get these people back out and not return. That’s huge. But then again, we’ve got other areas that need attention — management of the prisons inside … . I’m concerned about the drug smuggling that goes on … . That’s got to stop.”
Lyons said nothing surprised him during his work with the group, but “what was probably gut-wrenching was to realize that (some prisons) are warehouses. That’s got to change.”
“Obviously, we’re going to have to build some facilities,” said another House member on the panel, state Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, a former district judge. “If I were looking at (what) I want, I want the alternative sentencing done in a manner that it can be utilized to best effectuate what we’re trying to do here.”
The Alabama Legislature’s regular session starts Feb. 4, and Ward said, “Criminal justice reform will not happen in one session. It will take multiple sessions … and there are lot of things we need to address.”