By Cameron Smith | Alabama Policy Institute
Since Alabamians will vote Sept. 18 on a measure designed to prevent the “mass release of prisoners,” every voter should know about a change in Alabama’s prison sentencing enacted during the last legislative session. The new law, which garnered little attention outside of Montgomery, may provide a meaningful remedy for a portion of the budgetary issues facing Alabama’s prisons and the state general fund.
Alabama’s prisons face significant pressure from a number of sources. The annual cost to house an Alabama Department of Corrections inmate was $15,118.30, as recently as fiscal 2009. When multiplied by the 32,000 inmates housed in 29 facilities statewide, the budgetary impact becomes apparent. More importantly, the U.S. Bureau of Justice statistics show that Alabama’s state prisons are operating at nearly 200 percent of their physical capacity to hold inmates. This overcrowding increases danger to prison staff, may result in costly litigation and creates significant pressure to build costly new facilities.
For years these problems have gone unanswered, largely for political reasons. For many legislators, the very mention of prison sentencing reform inspires the political fear of being labeled “soft on crime.”
After a series of failed prison sentencing reform measures, including those pushed by former Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court Sue Bell Cobb, state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, spearheaded a successful effort to place the practical concerns of managing Alabama’s prisons before political expediency.
Alabama’s new prison sentencing reform law largely removes politics from the equation. The Alabama Sentencing Commission’s recommendations will now become law unless specifically rejected by the Legislature. This means the commission has the latitude to make difficult sentencing decisions that will be cost effective and keep Alabamians safe.
Ward’s efforts begin the process toward meaningful sentencing reform, but ASC faces a difficult task in actually developing common sense reforms. Rather than simply implementing broad generalizations that reduce sentences for certain nonviolent crimes, ASC must develop an empirically based risk assessment tool to evaluate individual inmates who are eligible for alternative sanctions. In other words, ASC must identify the factors that make an inmate likely to commit the same or worse crimes again when evaluating his or her sentence.
After implementing similar risk assessment-based reforms, Virginia, which was a model for Ward’s legislation, saw its incarceration rate increase by only 6 percent from 1994 to 2000, well below the national average of 22 percent. Using alternative sanctions based on factual indicators of recidivism rather than broadly reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes may allow Alabama to avoid “the mass release of prisoners,” alleviate budgetary pressures, and give some inmates a chance to turn their lives around.
Prison sentencing reform may not be at the top of the list for many Alabamians. But as one of the state’s most significant budgetary line items, the challenges facing Alabama’s prison system simply cannot be ignored. Easy noncontroversial cuts to Alabama’s state budget are becoming much harder to come by, which means Ward’s reform initiatives could not have arrived at a more opportune time.