Senate passes Ward’s prison reform bill

The Alabama Senate has passed a prison reform bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. (File)

The Alabama Senate has passed a prison reform bill sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. (File)

FROM STAFF REPORTS 

MONTGOMERY – The Alabama Senate on April 2 passed legislation to alleviate overcrowding in state prisons. Senate Bill 67 by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, will address the state’s failing prison system through reformed felony classifications, alternative sentencing and additional probation and parole officers. The legislation aims to fix systemic problems to avoid a federal takeover of the state’s prison system and save taxpayers money long-term.

Former presidential candidate and US Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich praised Ward and his colleagues for addressing this problem.

“This bill is the type of criminal justice reform that has been proven to lower recidivism rates, keep our citizens safer, allow low-level offenders to contribute back into society by lowering penalties for minor non-violent crimes and save taxpayers millions in incarceration costs. It’s time to not only get tougher on crime, but to get smarter,” said Gingrich.

“The idea behind much of the prison reform package is to invest in supervision of people coming out of prison – an approach that has drastically reduced reoffending in other states,” Ward, who chairs the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said. “We either build $400 million in prisons or spend much less now on a better long-term strategy.”

Alabama’s state prisons are estimated to hold nearly twice the number of inmates for which they were originally designed. In California, which had a similar problem of prison overcrowding, a federal judge ordered state officials to release tens of thousands of prisoners. The federal courts said California’s prisons were violating prisoners’ constitutional rights.

The legislation will create a new Class D felony for lower level drug and property crimes. Defendants convicted under the new Class D status will not be affected by the Habitual Offender Act, and could be shuttled toward community service programs designed to rehabilitate these lower-level offenders. Ward’s bill will also utilize alternative sentencing programs by allowing sentences for Class C and Class D offenses to be split between incarceration in a state prison and a supervised community corrections program. The result is cost savings for the taxpayer, lower recidivism rates, and increased public safety.

“When this session started, we promised bold reform. This effort to improve public safety while overhauling our broken Corrections system is one of the largest reform measures in many years,” said Ward. “I feel confident that our work with stakeholders throughout the state will pay off with passage of this bill in the legislature.”

SB67 was created with the expertise and input of many stakeholders, including: law enforcement, judges, public defenders, prosecutors, and victim advocate groups.

The House Judiciary Committee is now tasked with reviewing, debating and approving Ward’s bill, after which it will be debated by the full House.