Governor’s criminal justice study group holds first meeting

ALABAMA - The stakes are high as the Governor's office looks to address prison reform. The federal government is threatening a lawsuit against the state - after the Department of Justice found possible constitutional violations in state prisons.

The Governor's criminal justice study group convened for the first time this week. Group members say they just want to keep the public safe.

The federal government stepping in to end prison problems could affect taxpayers.

"A takeover by the courts would be devastating. They could raise our taxes arbitrarily by themselves millions and millions of dollars. We'd have no say at it, just to pay for prisons," said Senator Cam Ward, (R) Alabaster.

Ward is a member of the state's prison study group. In addition to addressing prison conditions, the group is concerned with maintaining public safety. They will look into improving the state Department of Corrections operations to enhance security, reducing recidivism, and evaluating sentencing policy. Ward says there is an emphasis on using data to achieve these goals.

"So, the data will figure out where the real problems are and that gives us a blueprint on this is what you've got to tackle, that is what you've got to tackle, this over here, everybody talks about it, but it's not a real problem," Ward explained.

Alabama is dealing with overcrowded prisons and concerns about releasing the wrong inmates early. Ward says when it comes to sentencing, the group wants to learn more about the prison population and inmate criminal history.

Everyone says well we've got 'x' number of nonviolent offenders. Well, what does that mean? Does a nonviolent offender mean they committed one nonviolent crime or maybe they committed six nonviolent crimes," Ward asked.

Analyzing this information could even determine a more personalized approach to sentencing.

"Which inmates are public safety risks, which ones aren't, and going forward as we look at sentencing new crimes, what's appropriate what's the appropriate sentence for the crime committed," he explained.

According to a statement from the Governor's press office, the group will dissolve the first day of the 2020 legislative session. The last meeting listed on the group's agenda is in January. A spokesperson for the governor confirmed that a special session to address prison reform is still on the table, but it's too early to tell if it will be needed.

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