Ward looking to reform prison sentencing

By NEAL WAGNER / City Editor

An Alabaster state senator recently sponsored a bill aimed at slowing the inmate population growth in what he called “the most overcrowded prison system in the United States today.”

Ward

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, sponsored a sentencing reform bill in early March. The bill has passed out of committee, and currently is pending action by the full Senate.

If the bill is passed, Ward said it will slow the prison population growth by allowing the Alabama Sentencing Commission to sentence non-violent offenders to certain programs instead of jail time.

“This is something that is long overdue,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, we just don’t have enough money to build more prisons.

“We already spend less per inmate than any other state in the country, so there’s nowhere else we can cut,” Ward said.

Ward said Alabama’s prisons currently are at about 193 percent of their intended capacities.

“We are almost at 200 percent capacity,” Ward said. “California was at 180 percent capacity, and they were sued and lost. If the federal courts take over, they will release inmates.

“In California, they released about 30,000 inmates,” Ward added.

Ward, who is co-chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, said about 65 percent of the state’s incoming prison population is made up of inmates who did not commit violent crimes.

If passed, Ward’s bill would allow the state’s Sentencing Commission to set new sentencing guidelines for non-violent offenders. The Sentencing Commission’s guidelines would then be presented to the Legislature for approval.

According to Ward’s bill, if the Legislature neither approves nor rejects the Sentencing Commission’s guidelines, the new guidelines will automatically go into effect after the legislative session.

Ward said, if passed, the bill would allow judges to sentence non-violent offenders to programs such as community corrections, mental health court and drug court. Most of the alternative programs would be funded by the offenders, Ward said.

“Medicaid and prisons constitute half of our general budget expenses,” Ward said. “Over the long term, this would dramatically slow down the growth of our prison population.

“That would give us room to keep the violent offenders in jail longer,” he added. “We shouldn’t lump everyone together into a single jail cell.”