It’s no secret that Alabama’s broken criminal justice system is in the early stages of reform.
But if that reform doesn’t happen to the extent it needs to, officials say the result could be financially crippling for Alabama. The change, however, isn’t going to be easy.
For the past several months, the Prison Reform Task Force, led by state Sen. Cam Ward, and the Council of State Governments Justice Center have been working together to study the system, come up with policy recommendations and effectively pinpoint funding needs for improvement.
Underfunded courts, overcrowded prisons and limited rehabilitation services for offenders are all major contributors to the failing system. And up until recent sentencing reform for drug and property criminals, that was part of the problem too.
One of the task force’s main goals — which was also the catalyst that drove the movement toward much-needed reforms — is reducing the capacity of Alabama’s overcrowded prisons, which are at about 190 percent of what they were designed for.
But reversing a criminal justice culture rooted in harsh punishments is not going to be easy for a conservative state that faces more challenges than most other states in the country.
“It’s going to be a huge uphill challenge,” Ward said. “It’s going to be very hard to push through because you have to change a lot of mindsets about how you deal with criminal justice. The goal is simple — you want less crime being committed. You want to make sure public safety comes first.”
Ward said incarceration by itself isn’t the only solution, and that concept is difficult to make people understand. He said investing in programs to help offenders get the services they need will, over time, improve public safety and lower recidivism.
“Long term, we want to reduce crime,” Ward said. “The way you do that is to make sure there’s less incentive and make sure the punishment fits the crime.”
Alabama’s Chief Justice Roy Moore, who on the task force, said he’s been a defense lawyer, a prosecutor and a circuit judge since he started his career in 1976.
“I consider the present criminal justice system to be unfair in its application,” Moore said. “We have people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim. The habitual felony law has been misused to add extremely long sentences that are unjustified.”
Moore said he has no doubt that the criminal justice system needs reform. He said he believes a major part of the prison overcrowding problem is unfair sentences that have been handed down over the years.
“One of the principal ingredients in justice is fairness,” he said. “Fairness to the victims, the defendants and society. We need to look at all aspects of it.”
Although states such as North Carolina and Texas have implemented reforms that have started to improve their criminal justice systems, none of those states had as many challenges as Alabama does, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.
“We’re in the worst situation of any state I’ve seen out there,” Ward said.
Wright said prisons in those states were better staffed, better funded and didn’t have an overcrowding crisis. Alabama’s parole and probation officers also have the highest number of caseloads in the country, he said. Each officer has about 220 cases to manage.
“We are in such a system crisis,” Wright said. “It isn’t about just (corrections), pardons and paroles or the court system. The entire system is underfunded and understaffed. It’s going to take a large, comprehensive, holistic package of reforms to move the system to a more manageable level.”
And that is going to require money, Wright said.
Although state leaders are hoping significant changes can be made without money, Ward said that’s not the case. With a dwindling General Fund, the state is already facing a budget crisis in 2015.
At some point, money will have to be spent on new construction to replace some of the old prisons and improving drug and mental health programming for offenders, Ward said. Right now, resources in the state are scarce, especially in rural communities, he said.
“Before you start throwing money at a problem, there’s got to be some structural reforms put into place to make sure you’re spending money the best way possible,” Ward said.
Andy Barbee, the lead researcher for the CSG, said even if Alabama reduces its prison population by 3,000 or 4,000 inmates, the system would still be at about 175 percent capacity. If significant changes aren’t made, the state will likely face expensive lawsuits that could lead to federal intervention, he said.
Wright said the goal is to change lives, change behavior and change the system. In order to do that, there will need to be a continued stream of adequate funding for courts, prisons, community supervision and rehabilitative programming.
The state has exhausted its “free” reform options, Wright said. The change to presumptive sentencing guidelines for drug and property crimes was a huge step, but it won’t be enough to significantly reduce the prison population.
Managing the prison population also won’t change behavior or reduce recidivism, he said.
Wright said the majority of people who come to prison have a great deal of unmet needs — substance abuse, mental health problems and educational gaps. When you take those people and put them into the community, their needs are still not being met, and it’s much more expensive to provide those services behind bars.
“It’s not a matter of not having (services),” he said. “It’s a matter of which is more effective and which is cheaper.”
Ward said part of the problem is that community supervision has to work. The concept is meant to make sure offenders stay clean and on the right path.
Meridith Barnes, an assistant attorney general and legal counsel for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the mindset that you’re protecting the public because you’re locking all the criminals up needs to change.
The right way to approach community supervision is to try to help individuals make life changes.
“It’s a resources issue,” she said. “The state is going to have to find a way to make it a reality. Once we’re there, everyone will see the benefits.”
Barnes said once there are more resources and infrastructure to help people, the pardons and parole board is naturally going to parole more people so they can benefit from those programs. Right now, a lot of people need to get programming while they’re in prison because resources outside are so limited.
“At some point, we’re going to have to decide what really matters and where we’re going to put funding instead of recycling the problem over and over,” Barnes said. “If our policy makers view it as a serious issue, they’re going to have to find money to do it.”
Barbee said before the 2015 legislative session, the CSG research team is going to put together a package of recommended bills and policy changes for the task force. He said it’s not going to be easy to get everyone to agree.
“We can’t expect every single person on this task force will be jumping for joy with the proposals at the end of the day,” Barnes said.
Barnes said because the task force has leaders from different agencies and interests, people automatically look at the problems from their agency’s perspective.
“It’s important for task force members to get past it to do what’s best for the state, even if it means that agency has to change something,” she said. “But I don’t think you’re going to get everyone to buy in and I don’t think everyone’s going to agree at the State House either.”
In the past, legislators have tended to shy away from criminal justice reform after finding out how politically unpopular those efforts are, Wright said.
“It’s really easy to talk in general terms about support for criminal justice reform and sentencing reform,” Wright said. “But once people see the details and what’s involved, their support tends to wane.”
Ward said the process of reform — and reducing the prison population — will take years.
“It’s not going to take one year,” he said. “It look us a long time to get in the mess we’re in.”