Traditionally, all things dealing with the prisons and the Alabama Department of Corrections has been a Democratic Party issue. However, with Alabama’s prisons potentially in violation of the Eighth Amendment of the Constitution and Republicans in control of all levers of power in Montgomery, it is a GOP issue.
The question is, how will a Republican supermajority in the State House deal with a threat from the Department of Justice in 2020?
It is widely expected that much like the Rebuild Alabama Act, which hiked everyone’s gas tax, Gov. Kay Ivey will call a special session within the general session to try and force action on Alabama’s prisons.
It is not as if this came out of thin air. Ivey highlighted prisons in her January 2019 inaugural address.
“Much like our roads and bridges, our prison system, too, has been sorely neglected for decades,” she said. “The poor conditions of our prisons create a risk to public safety and are placing a heavy burden on taxpayers.
“The status of our corrections system is an Alabama problem that must be solved by an Alabama solution. As your governor, I plan to do so. We are revitalizing our statewide corrections system by replacing costly, at-risk prison facilities. This effort will ensure that Alabama stays committed to statewide prison reform, and we will be announcing more detailed plans in the coming days.”
At the time, it was not a surprise. Ivey’s predecessors over the last 100 years had to grapple with Alabama’s prisons in some form.
The problem is this is not a traditional Republican issue. Republicans do not run to improve prisons. Republicans are known as the political party that is tough on crime, and punishment from our criminal justice system should be viewed as a deterrent.
As of now, there seem to be four components: sentencing reform; adding more prison capacity; improvements to healthcare and mental health offerings; and vocational training for the incarcerated, so they have a marketable skill for employment upon release.
Where things could be hung up is on the sentencing reform component. State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, now a candidate for associate justice on the Alabama Supreme Court, has been leading the charge for sentencing reform as it pertains to prison reform.
Last month while on the campaign trail in the Shoals, Ward explained the urgency of the issue.
“What you don’t want in this state — I’m going to tell y’all, people will go, ‘Prison reform? Does that mean y’all are loving up on the prisoners?’” he said. “No, here’s the problem we have: If you ever go into a federal receivership like we did in the 1980s — let me tell y’all what happens when that happens. Of course, as you’re running an unconstitutional system in violation of the Eighth Amendment, they can take over your system, and when they do that, your legislature just has no more say whatsoever.”
The specifics of what Ward’s idea of sentencing reform may entail are not yet clear. However, it does have some opponents.
If the legislature does move to lower some felonies to misdemeanors, it could mean an added burden on all 67 counties in Alabama. Instead of lockup for a felony in a state facility, a violator may instead serve time at a county jail, which shifts the costs from the state to the county.
Some outright reject the notion of sentencing reform. State Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, who is a former prosecutor in both Mobile and Baldwin counties, argues prison reform and sentencing reform should not be conflated.
“That next step is where I really can’t get on board when people are talking about sentencing reform,” he explained in a recent interview. “I don’t think sentencing reform — I don’t think it is needed. I don’t think it is necessary. I know in the Department of Justice report that they issued out, sentencing reform is not mentioned in that report. I think some people like to take an opportunity when you’re looking at prisons, and when you’re looking at what’s going on to include sentencing reform in there. I don’t think it is needed.”
The answer, according to Simpson, is adding capacity and what he deems as truth in sentencing, which will have a self-correcting mechanism to lower sentences.
“I think you have to build more prisons to add more people to be there,” Simpson said. “I think one of the more important things you have to ask for is truth in sentencing. And what that means is if you’re sentencing someone for the crime they committed, they should do that time or around 85 percent of that time, and that’s going to bring your sentences down.”
Ivey has signaled she will act on the actual brick-and-mortar aspects of the prisons with or without action by the legislature, given her executive authority over the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
She can sign a year-to-year lease with a private company that will build and own the facilities, which would be staffed by ADOC personnel.
That is not the most democratic way of going about it. But it beats a takeover by the federal government.
Oh yeah, and Washington will also send us the bill.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.
It looks like you are opening this page from the Facebook App. This article needs to be opened in the browser.
iOS: Tap the three dots in the top right, then tap on "Open in Safari".
Android: Tap the Settings icon (it looks like three horizontal lines), then tap App Settings, then toggle the "Open links externally" setting to On (it should turn from gray to blue).