Alabama prison reform task force offers plan, now lawmakers will need to pass legislation

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WHNT) -- The task force formed to tackle Alabama's overcrowded prison system approved a plan they believe will help the state fix the system that currently is operating at nearly double its capacity.

Governor Robert Bentley spoke about the prison reform issue at length during his State of The State address Tuesday night. Bentley said the recommendations made by the task force  are intended to reduce prison crowding by curbing recidivism and preserving prison space for violent offenders.

It will be up to the Alabama Legislature to decide whether the plan goes forward. Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the task force, hopes to pass a bill this session based on the task force recommendations, but that will be difficult. The policy reforms recommended are estimated to cost about $25 million a year.  And with the state looking at a $200 million plus budget shortfall this year, money will be hard to find.

The task force also voted to support the addition of 2,000 prison beds over the next five years at an estimated cost of $60 million, or about $12 million a year. The beds would be in additions to existing facilities, rather than at a new prison.

The task force also voted to extend its work for another year, through the 2016 legislative session.

Ward told our news partners at AL.com Tuesday, if the state doesn't take steps to relieve crowding in its prisons, it risks intervention by a federal court.

Governor Robert Bentley addressed prison reform issue during his State of the State speech from Montgomery Tuesday night:

"As a Conservative Leader, there are three things that are important to me. Upholding the rule of law, using our state resources wisely and efficiently and preserving the autonomy of state government.

In Alabama, the problems that have plagued our prison system for decades has put those principles at risk. The rule of law must be observed and those who break the law should be held accountable for their actions.

The blunt facts are alarming. Alabama’s state-operated prison facilities — the most overcrowded in the United States — are operating at more than 195-percent capacity.

We have been forced to rely on short-term fixes that have proven costly, dangerous and disorganized.  The result has been an overall increasingly inefficient system. 

That is why over the past year, Alabama lawmakers, leaders in the criminal justice system, local and state judges, district attorneys, victims’ rights groups, and many others have collaborated as part of the Prison Reform Task Force to develop a new plan to reform our prison system. 

It won’t be easy and it certainly won’t be cheap. But we cannot ignore and under-fund what is an alarming and dangerous problem that must be addressed,"

- Robert Bentley