How Alabama can reform its criminal justice system to work for everyone

Alabamians deserve a justice system that sentences fairly, provides helpful rehabilitative services and keeps people safe during incarceration. But Alabama often falls catastrophically short of fulfilling those obligations.

Our state’s prisons are violent and poorly staffed. As a result, they often function as little more than warehouses to keep people locked up until their sentences end.

The crisis in Alabama’s prisons has cost many lives already and shows no sign of stopping. Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy formed last year to propose steps to fix the problems. The study group published its recommendations last week. Unfortunately, they fall far short of advocating the system-wide changes Alabama needs to create an effective, humane corrections system.

Investments in mental health care, substance use disorder treatments would help thousands

Alabama needs to provide a pathway to full societal participation for people caught up in the criminal justice system. That pathway starts with treatment resources for mental health issues and substance use disorders that lead many people to incarceration. This is a public health problem, and our state can’t imprison its way out.

Medicaid is the largest provider of mental health services in the United States. Timely intervention would keep many people from ever reaching the point where they risk incarceration in a system that isn’t designed for or capable of meeting their needs.

The best option to increase funding for mental health and substance use disorder treatment services is Medicaid expansion. This move would reduce recidivism among people who were incarcerated. Even more, these investments would prevent many people from going to prison in the first place.

The study group’s recommendations fail to address Alabama’s urgent need for Medicaid expansion, but the governor should expand Medicaid anyway. Without that step, the path toward lasting, meaningful criminal justice reform becomes much more difficult.

Significant sentencing reform, fair parole hearings are necessary

Alabama’s sentencing practices need broad improvements beyond the limited relief valves endorsed in the study group’s report. The study group recommended the reintroduction of certain post-conviction motions for relief. It also proposed allowing people who are incarcerated to petition for sentence reduction when their sentence would be lower under current guidelines.

These moves would help, but they aren’t enough to fix a broken system. Alabama needs broader reforms like an end to the Habitual Felony Offender Act and sentence reductions for some nonviolent felonies. Many lawmakers may view such changes as politically risky, but that doesn’t make them any less necessary.

Dena Dickerson, executive director of the Offender Alumni Association, speaks during an Oct. 3, 2019, news conference at the State House in Montgomery. Dickerson was one of dozens of supporters of Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) who assembled to show support for reforms to make Alabama’s corrections system more humane and restorative. Alabama Arise is a member of the AFJ coalition.

Alabama’s aging, overcrowded prisons won’t fix themselves. Just last week, the state closed large portions of Holman Correctional Facility in Escambia County, citing its dangerous structural dilapidation. The Department of Corrections is trying to find long-term placements for more than 600 people who were housed at Holman.

The study group also didn’t address the logjam that the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has created with its near-total stoppage of paroles in recent months. Parole hearings aren’t appropriate places to retry cases against a person applying for parole. The focus must be on whether applicants pose a risk to the community, not whether their release would garner bad press.

Better preparation for release would reduce recidivism

The study group identified several good opportunities to reduce the odds that a person will end up back in prison. Educational incentive time and increased access to training would help provide people with reachable goals they can use to build a stable life outside of prison.

Pre-release supervision for all people leaving prison would provide them with needed guidance upon reentering society. Ensuring that people have driver’s licenses or other appropriate identification also would remove barriers to rebuilding a life. So would granting people more flexibility to report to their parole officers outside of their scheduled work hours.

Alabama should go even further in easing reentry and reducing recidivism. Drug courts and mental health courts are vital ways to reduce the toll of addiction and mental health crises. But Alabama’s alternative courts don’t operate under a standardized system. The study group didn’t recommend a uniform system for operating these courts or improving access to them. But the Legislature should address that need this year.

Modest improvements won’t cut it

The federal government already has taken notice of the moral atrocity that is Alabama’s prison system. The study group’s recommendations would seal up some cracks, help hundreds of people and remedy some prior oversights. But the suggestions don’t do enough to reduce the overcrowding that threatens to trigger federal takeover. And they aren’t enough to transform Alabama’s criminal justice system into one truly focused on rehabilitation first.

Instead of warehousing people until their sentences end, Alabama should ensure they can participate in society when they get out. The study group’s recommendations are all good steps that would improve our corrections system. But lawmakers will have to be significantly bolder if they want to build a more humane, more restorative criminal justice system that works for all Alabamians.