Prison Reform

Prison Reform

Corryn Carter, Editorial Pages Editor

On Feb. 18, Alabamians for Fairer Justice descended upon the Alabama State House to demand that legislators commit to criminal justice reform. Alabama, a state touting the fifth-largest prison population in the country, is in the midst of a prison crisis. Last April, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) declared Alabama state prisons as both “unsafe” and “unconstitutional.” This was after an investigation revealed destitute living conditions and regular instances of murder and violence, exacerbated by innate overcrowding and understaffing. The DOJ is offering lawmakers some time to make the necessary changes before they are forced to intervene. 

Governor Kay Ivey, has proposed that the state construct three new mega-prisons, designed to hold eight times the capacity of a regular prison. Early estimates for these mega-prisons are at $900 million. The cost will be offset by closing older prisons, which she says are too costly to repair and maintain. 

Ivey’s plan to construct mega-prisons addresses such a minute aspect of the issue. Building new prisons does nothing if the penal code is not examined to identify how this overcrowding began in the first place. The Governor’s Study Group on Prisons, a panel of chaired by former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Champ Lyons, Jr., recommended significant changes to the structure of the criminal justice system, including prison diversion and mental health programs. They also recommended that more funding be allocated to re-entry programs so that the formerly incarcerated have an easier transition back into mainstream society. 

Advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Alabama, Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) and Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice have presented research that coincides with the study group’s recommendations. Each of them, in conjunction with the Alabamians for Fair Justice Coalition, is demanding that lawmakers repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act, a statute that requires repeat offenders have their charges upgraded. As a result, there are people in Alabama prisons serving life sentences for non-violent crimes, thus taking up valuable space. 250 people have crimes that do not exceed robbery in severity. They are also asking that legislatures reclassify marijuana possession from a felony to a misdemeanor, which would dramatically decrease the $22 million spent to enforce marijuana laws. Among other things, they are also calling for sentencing guidelines passed in 2013 to be made retroactive. Doing so would allow prisoners to have their sentences reevaluated under the new guidelines which are less stringent and would help alleviate prison overcrowding. 

While prison reform in the state should undoubtedly focus on provisions for those currently in prison, it should also consider those who will be released. Alabama Appleseed Center for Law & Justice has research that details the effects of collateral punishments like suspending driver’s licenses for inability to pay fines and fees. Legislation has also been proposed that would eliminate the requirement to pay fines and fees to regain voting rights. This bill would work hand-in-hand with HB282, The Definition of Moral Turpitude Act, which makes those with non-disqualifying felony offenses eligible for restored voting rights. 

The truth is, the criminal justice system in the state of Alabama needs a complete overhaul. The body of laws makes it very easy for those who have committed a crime to spend time in prison even with evidence supporting that it is counterproductive. Those who spend time in prison are much more likely to offend again, especially because of the discrimination they will face upon their societal re-entry. As of now, the prison system in the state of Alabama is focused on punishment as opposed to rehabilitation, and as a result, each of us will suffer. 

The implementation of these reforms begins with each of us. Get in touch with your local representatives and make sure that your voice is heard. Participate in the local lobby days and hold your representatives accountable. It is your job to make your interests known and it is your representative’s job to represent your interests. Schedule a meeting with each of them to understand their stances on prison reform issues and check-in frequently to remain updated.