Against a backdrop of human tragedy, Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy is working toward a January deadline for its recommendations to the Legislature. The U.S. Department of Justice in April issued a sobering overview of the Alabama corrections system’s numerous shortcomings. And the Montgomery Advertiser shed further light on the situation in November, publishing horrific accounts of life inside state prisons.
It’s no secret that Alabama’s prisons are overcrowded, violent and inhumane. Any meaningful solution to this crisis must address two major challenges. First, it must alleviate the abysmal conditions inside Alabama’s prisons. Second, it must help people who are at risk of incarceration or re-incarceration become productive members of their communities. (See the key policy recommendations from Alabamians for Fair Justice below.)
The missing voices who need to be heard
Alabama Arise has been following the study group’s learning curve on a broad array of criminal justice issues. In four public meetings since July, members have received a flood of statistics from prison administrators, sentencing specialists, law enforcement officers, prosecutors, judges, mental health officials and other experts. They also have toured multiple correctional facilities, becoming eyewitnesses to the shameful conditions they’re charged with improving.
Largely missing from this crash course: the voices of the people Alabama’s criminal justice system affects most. The panel should fill that gap by inviting testimony from inmates’ family members and formerly incarcerated individuals. Many of them have attended the public study group meetings, and the formal recommendations should reflect their lived experiences.
Policy solutions should ease reentry, reduce recidivism
Of the roughly 21,000 people in Alabama’s prisons in a given year, 95% eventually reenter society, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC). Of those, about 29% wind up back in prison within three years.
Breaking the cycle of recidivism is a challenge that reaches beyond DOC, or even criminal justice policy. It also requires community partnerships to serve people with untreated mental health and addiction problems. These challenges can undermine successful reentry and often contribute to incarceration in the first place.
By targeting recidivism, the study group is highlighting our state’s overburdened community mental health and substance use services network. Medicaid expansion, at a 90% federal match, would allow Alabama to expand these services tenfold for the same state investment. The study group should urge our state to take this essential step forward.
The study group’s measured, highly visible approach to its complicated challenge is not one it can easily shrug off. The panel has set a high bar for meaningful recommendations, and Arise expects them to meet it. Arise and our partners in the Alabamians for Fair Justice alliance will keep up the pressure for comprehensive, lasting reform.
The path to a better corrections system
Alabama’s corrections system must become more humane and restorative. Alabama Arise and our allies in the Alabamians for Fair Justice coalition have proposed numerous changes to put our state on a path toward dignity, equity and justice for all. Here are a few of these recommendations:
- Expand state investments in mental health care and treatment for substance use disorders.
- Increase state support for mental health courts, pretrial diversion and reentry programs.
- Reduce court costs and give people a reasonable amount of time to begin paying fines and restitution after returning from prison.
- End automatic suspensions of driver’s licenses in cases unrelated to traffic safety.
- Apply the state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines retroactively.
Visit alabamafairjustice.org/resources to read the coalition’s full list of policy solutions on prison reform in Alabama.