‘Not an easy task’: Ward talks prison troubles in Washington

Published 11:09 am Friday, July 18, 2014

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, left, speaks during a July 15 congressional committee hearing in Washington. (Contributed)

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, left, speaks during a July 15 congressional committee hearing in Washington. (Contributed)

By NEAL WAGNER / Managing Editor

Alabama state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, joined Congressman Spencer Bachus in Washington on July 16 to brief Alabama congressional delegation staff members on possible ways to combat Alabama’s significant prison overcrowding.

The briefing followed earlier testimony that Ward delivered on prison reform to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, Homeland Security and Investigations. Ward recently was named the Chairman of the Joint Prison Oversight Committee established by the Alabama Legislature to explore potential reforms to the state’s prison system.

The delegation briefing focused on the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a partnership between Alabama and the Council of State Governments whose goal is to thoroughly examine the state’s criminal justice system and use hard data as a basis for recommendations for potential policy changes.

In his testimony, Ward said Alabama’s prison system is at 192 percent capacity, making it the most crowded state prison system in the nation. Ward said it would take an estimated $600 million, or more than half of the state’s general fund budget, to build enough cells just to bring it down to 137 percent capacity.

In an interview before he traveled to Washington, Ward said Alabama is looking for “anything that can be done to help prevent a federal intervention” in the state’s prison system, which he said could result in a large-scale release of inmates.

“Whether it is on the state or federal level, fixing corrections programs is not an easy or short-term task,” Ward wrote in a release. “There are some tough political choices that have to be made, but fiscal constraints on our budgets and the obligation to maintain a constitutional system of corrections require that we start addressing this problem sooner rather than later.”

“The issues of prison costs and overcrowding facing the state of Alabama are challenging states across the country and the federal penitentiary system as well. There is a need for sensible reform in both our state and federal systems,” Bachus wrote in a release. “State Senator Ward brought a very valuable perspective on how Alabama is approaching this problem to Congress and his views will help both the Judiciary Committee and the special Over-Criminalization Task Force that I serve on to address an urgent issue confronting our criminal justice system.”