Lawmakers have 12 days to pass prison reform, avoid federal takeover

Special Legislative Session begins Monday at 4pm
State lawmakers return to Montgomery for special session on prison reform.
State lawmakers return to Montgomery for special session on prison reform.(WBRC)
Published: Sep. 27, 2021 at 11:49 AM CDT
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BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WBRC) - The Alabama Legislature is facing its toughest task yet – turning around the state’s prison crisis and avoiding a costly federal takeover. A special legislative session starts Monday evening, where lawmakers will consider solutions that involve public safety and your hard-earned tax dollars. Despite the looming demands ahead, lawmakers are cautiously optimistic.

“I’m pretty confident, we’ve been dealing with this for five years,” said Representative Steve Clouse of Ozark.

Clouse chairs the House Ways and Means Committee where financial bills start, including two that will decide how to pay for three new prisons and millions in capital projects. The last time the Legislature nearly passed a prison construction bill: 2016.

“This particular proposal now is the sweet spot,” Clouse added.

One bill will seek $785 million in bonds to finance prison construction. Another would allow lawmakers to allocate $154 million from the general fund and $400 million from American Rescue Plan dollars. This gives the Legislature upwards of $1.3 billion to build four thousand bed mega prisons in Elmore and Escambia Counties, rebuild Tutwiler Prison and set aside millions for capital repairs. It’s important to note, this doesn’t create new prison space.

“The one in Elmore County with the mental health aspects, medical aspects and education acts aspects will really help us with our continuing legal battles with Department of Justice.”

Infusing the federal rescue plan funds is controversial, but according to Clouse it cuts the annual bond payment in half freeing up needed resources.

“Those funds will go toward building the Tutwiler facility and renovating the facilities in Limestone County and Donaldson in Jefferson County, and one of the facilities in either Barbour or Bullock Counties,” Clouse noted.

Lawmakers have the opportunity to purchase a privately owned Perry County correctional facility for around $15 million dollars, which would also need millions for repairs. Clouse said it won’t help overcrowding, however it could be used for those who violate parole and workforce development.

“It will help us with the situation we’ve got in county jails now with state inmates that are left there for periods [prior to transitioning to ADOC], longer than they’re supposed to be.”

Lawmakers will also take up two areas of reform. One would allow non-violent offenders who went to prison prior to 2013 to be resentenced under the current sentencing standards. It’s unclear how many prisoners could be impacted, however it’s uncommon to find non-violent offenders in the ADOC. Other legislation would add mandatory supervision for some prisoners during re-entry, aimed at reducing recidivism.

“It is going to be a win by getting us further down the road to be in compliance with the Department of Justice,” Clouse said of current proposals.

Lawmakers convene Monday at 4pm, they will have twelve legislative days to pass the necessary reforms.

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