Alabama prison study group hopeful plan will satisfy US Department of Justice

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Alabama Legislature begins work Feb. 4, with a packed agenda.

Among the pressing issues before legislators is the U.S. Department of Justice assertion that Alabama`s prison conditions violate the U.S. Constitution.

Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, says the legislature will take up the prison problem.

“For sure we’re going to be dealing with the corrections issue,” he said. “We’re under notice from the DOJ to address the corrections. We’re already working on it.”

A study group formed last year by Gov. Kay Ivey has looked at a host of problems. McCutcheon says it’s a long list.

“There’s many issues dealing with recidivism, the space that we have, the safety issue, corrections officers, safety of the corrections officers, mental health treatment,” McCutcheon said. “All of these are pieces in this puzzle we’re trying to put together.”

Sen. Cam Ward and other members of the task force toured Alabama’s prisons as they worked to craft legislation.

“They’re just inadequate. The roofs are falling in on their head. And I know a lot of folks say well that’s fine, they should be because they’re prisoners, but under the U.S. Constitution, the federal judge has already told us you got to fix that problem,” Ward said.

Ward says several bills are coming out of the working group, which had its final meeting Tuesday.

“Mine is going to deal with reentry program. More investment in drug rehabilitation, mental health rehabilitation, and reentry as far as prison education,” Ward said.

He says others will address sentencing and oversight.

The clock is ticking on the threat of a lawsuit from the Department of Justice.

“I think its’ we got to put up or shut up time. At the end of the day DOJ told us, they said either you’re going to do something or we’re going to do it for you,” Ward said.

But Ward believes the work coming out of the task force will satisfy the DOJ.

“If we pass those, I think that will really help us a lot with DOJ,” Ward said. “We basically crafted our responses to what the Department of Justice wants to see us do. So that’s how we crafted it. They want to see us make a good faith effort.”

But the working group will need support from lawmakers to make that good faith effort come to fruition.

“Being a part of this group it gives you a little bit of hope in that, it’s one of the rare areas where you see bipartisanship. Again, in a hyper-partisan climate, you just don’t see that anymore and I enjoy that conversation,” Ward said.

The House Speaker says Alabamians will soon see how the state is going to address the DOJ’s concerns.

“When we begin the session you’ll start hearing about maybe a piece of legislation which might affect one of those issues,” McCutcheon said.

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