Folks, taking care of prisoners is not a popular political issue. However, every so often Alabama politicians pragmatically have to acquiesce to the mandates of federal judges and grant our transgressing citizens their rights as determined by the courts.
Federal courts have determined that our felons deserve the rights to adequate imprisonment. You just cannot log them in, lock them up and give them a basic bunk and rations three times a day. Courts want them to have sufficient space and access to mental health care.
Some state prison systems have come under a federal court order and have been given instructions on how to run their prisons and how to treat prisoners without regard to how much it costs. We in Alabama know that all too well. We went down that road a few years ago with federal judge Frank Johnson.
We are headed in the same direction again. Alabama, like many states, has prison overcrowding and violence problems. Just as the Legislature began preparing their budgets for the coming year, the Department of Justice (DOJ), in conjunction with all our U.S. Attorneys in concurrence, has sent Alabama a clear message that the state’s overcrowded and understaffed correctional system is in incredibly poor physical shape.
In a precise outline, the Justice Department clearly defines the remedies that the state must take to avoid federal intervention. This detailed report focuses on the most acute problems, which are sexual abuse, drug trade and extortion and the lack of adequate mental health for prisoners which is causing a high suicide rate.
The federal investigators clearly said that the prisons are so dangerous that there is reasonable cause to believe that the state is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.
Their outline clarified to the state that the overcrowding problem will and should be addressed by additional prisons. However, the report further said that new facilities will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.
Judge Myron Thompson, the Senior United States District Judge of the United States District Court for the Middle District of Alabama, has been overseeing the mental health issues in the prisons for several years. The Alabama Legislature has shown Thompson a good faith effort toward remedying our prison shortcomings and Thompson has responded with leniency.
In 2015, the Alabama Legislature passed criminal justice reform legislation that greatly reduced the number of inmates in Alabama. Through legislative efforts, the state prison population has decreased from nearly 200% of capacity to about 160%.
First on most wish lists for prisons is increasing our staffing levels and improving the pay scale for correctional officers. Alabama prison guards are the lowest paid in the nation. Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), who chairs the General Fund Budget Committee, dropped an extra $80 million into the budget last year for increased prison personnel spending. Even then, as Clouse told a Dothan Chamber Commerce group in February, “People are not beating down doors to be prison guards.”
The Alabama Department of Corrections is asking for a sizeable increase this year to hire additional correctional officers, which will probably be granted.
Gov. Kay Ivey quickly responded to the report by saying she is committed to working with the DOJ to address the problems. The governor said she is proceeding with her plan to build new prisons, which is expected to cost a billion dollars. This is validation that her initial plan to build new prisons is the right path. The problem in the Legislature is, “How do you pay for them and where do you put them?”
Under any new plan to build or lease new prisons, it must be coupled with prison sentencing reform which is being implemented in a good many states. This reform must include a revised sentencing structure and some inclusion of alternative sentencing options to the state penitentiary system for offenders who pose no threat of violence to society.
A good example is that currently under Alabama law, the second time a person is caught in possession of marijuana, they are charged with a felony, and then under the “three strikes” law, you could send someone to prison for life after three felony violations for smoking marijuana. Marijuana use should probably not result in a felony conviction unless it is for trafficking.
State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) has done a yeoman’s job leading Alabama’s Criminal Justice Reform efforts. He will be at the forefront of the prisons working with Gov. Ivey.
See you next week.
(Steve Flowers, who served 16 years in the Alabama Legislature, is Alabama’s leading political columnist. Flowers’ weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He may be reached at www.steveflowers.us.)