State officials in Alabama must address serious and widespread issues plaguing its prisons, or else the federal government has indicated it will intercede – and soon.
Primarily, the problem is overcrowding, stemming from decades-old policies that involve harsh minimum mandatory sentences for non-violent offenders – particularly those convicted of drug offenses. Beyond that, state prisons are breeding grounds for abuse and maltreatment. The U.S. Department of Justice has referenced some 20 cases in which staff members engaged in sexual conduct with prisoners at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.
In its January letter threatening a federal lawsuit and intervention, the justice department characterized staffing and supervision levels as “catastrophically low.” Alabama is the No. 1 worst state in the nation in terms of space, with lock-up facilities at roughly double capacity. While the state population rose by 23 percent since 1977, the state's prison population climbed by 840 percent.
It can't stay this way. Action will come one way or the other. Either Alabama officials will implement swift and meaningful reform, or the federal government will make it happen. Consider that in California three years ago, federal courts forced the state to free some 30,000 prisoners due to overcrowding.
There are competing ideas for how the tackle the problem. As our Birmingham criminal defense lawyers understand it, there are one of two basic outcomes: Either taxes are raised and we expand on the current system, or we change the way we sentence and supervise non-violent offenders.
The latter could prove a benefit to those facing criminal charges, but it's not a given. Defendants in Alabama still face some of the highest conviction rates and the harshest sentencing, so it remains imperative to seek experienced legal counsel.
A bill is currently pending that would allocate $35 million every year for four years to alter sentencing and probation/parole practices. However, the plan would also create new prison beds and add more parole officers. The intended result would be a prison population reduction of 4,500 prisoners, which would reduce the capacity from 192 percent to 140 percent. If that is actually accomplished, it would be the fastest reduction of prison population the country has ever seen.
But the plan may not be completely realistic. The state right now is grappling with a budget crisis. Where that $35 million will come from isn't clear. However, if the state were to try to simply build more prisons and add more guards – with no focus on sentence reduction – it would cost an estimated $650 million. What's more, it wouldn't do anything to stem the increasing tide of new prisoners.
Should the federal government intercede, it could order a mass release of prisoners or the immediate implementation of a massive construction project.
Drug and property crimes account for two-thirds of all prison sentences, with the average inmate spending twice as long in prison compared to the national average due to minimum mandatory sentencing. What's more, probation and parole violations account for about 40 percent of all state prison admissions.
The new measure would create a new class of felony – Class D. The new class would no longer label certain theft and property crimes as “violent,” thus removing the mandated prison sentence. Further, parole and probation officers would receive additional training. Technical violations would result in an immediate – but short – jail stay, instead of waiting for months to go to a prison that doesn't have room for them.
These changes could benefit Alabama defendants, but they won't negate the need for experienced legal representation for those facing criminal charges.
Fix Alabama prisons now or the federal court will, March 4, 2015, AL.com Editorial Board