Criminal justice study group offers Alabama a chance to set the right course toward reform

Alabama needs a criminal justice system that values the lives and well-being of everyone involved. Our state should treat people fairly, apply punishment humanely and focus on restoring offenders to productive roles in society.

Alabama Arise is closely monitoring the Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy that Gov. Kay Ivey appointed in July. Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons chairs the panel, which also includes six legislators, the attorney general, the finance director and the commissioner of the Department of Corrections (DOC). The group has held two meetings so far and will report its findings in January 2020.

Arise hopes the study group can identify and endorse reforms needed to modernize Alabama’s criminal justice system. Improvements are possible in every aspect of the state’s incarceration and supervision systems. Sentencing reform and recidivism reduction through improved services and re-entry programs will be two vital steps. And it will be crucial to ensure that people who were incarcerated have voices in identifying needs and developing policy.

Expanding Medicaid, mental health services would reduce prison populations

Medicaid expansion is an essential part of Alabama’s prison reform solution. Expansion would reduce financial strain on prisons and strengthen safeguards against recidivism. On the first count, Medicaid would allow prisoners who are hospitalized to receive Medicaid coverage. This would drastically reduce state costs if an inmate develops a serious illness or becomes a victim of the shockingly high levels of violence in state prisons.

Further, Alabama could use Medicaid expansion to provide mental health and substance use disorder treatment in communities with a chronic lack of such resources. Many convictions result from underlying mental health or substance use problems that go untreated. Stronger investments in mental health and addiction treatment could prevent many people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. And Medicaid expansion would allow Alabama to expand mental health services tenfold with little or no increase in state cost.

Sentencing reform would ease burdens on Alabama’s criminal justice system

Many Alabama courts have a sad legacy of imposing large fines and overly punitive sentences for relatively minor crimes. These measures, coupled with unreasonably high economic consequences for convictions, often ruin people’s ability to start over after a conviction.

The Legislature recently adopted some beneficial changes to modernize the state’s sentencing practices. But the state still needs many other significant improvements to ensure proportionality and justice.

For instance, Alabama’s habitual offender law can lead to manifestly unjust results. The law allows people with previous convictions to be sentenced to life in prison for theft of a credit card. And people too often receive a prison sentence even when the sentencing guidelines say community correction programs are more appropriate. Fixing these shortcomings would save money and help mitigate the overcrowding crisis in state prisons. It also would reduce the odds that a minor offense would destroy someone’s life.

Alternative courts have better outcomes

The study group also should consider the benefits that problem-solving courts provide to both offenders and the state. Both drug courts and mental health courts are proven ways to reduce recidivism significantly – and therefore reduce state costs.

These programs address underlying conditions that lead many Alabamians to end up in the criminal justice system. And they can keep life-altering convictions from limiting a person’s prospects by dismissing charges upon completion of the assigned program. But these programs are expensive, and no uniform statewide eligibility criteria exist for either drug or mental health courts.

The study group should recommend expanding and standardizing the use of these proven, efficient programs. As noted above, Medicaid expansion would strengthen the capacity of community-based services to fulfill the mandate of alternative sentencing.

Alabama can create a criminal justice system that works for everyone

One of Arise’s core beliefs is that policymakers always should seek input from people who would be affected by changes. The same principle holds true when it comes to reform of the state’s prisons and criminal justice system.

Thousands of people throughout Alabama could have better lives if our state updates and improves its criminal justice system. People who have been involved in the system have valuable insight into ways it can improve. In particular, people who were formerly incarcerated can help identify needed improvements and recommend ways to avoid some pitfalls of current operations.

The study group has a chance to make desperately needed strides toward criminal justice reform before the next legislative session. The solution to Alabama’s prison problem must be broader than just building new prisons while keeping outdated sentencing procedures and resource allocation.

Doing the bare minimum to avoid federal oversight would be a disservice to our state. The study group’s recommendations should offer a vision of a fully functional criminal justice system in Alabama. With full consideration of the available options and a willingness to recommend bold, far-reaching reforms, the study group can put Alabama on the right path toward dignity, equity and justice for all.