Alabama prison study group to make recommendations

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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey’s study commission on criminal justice policy will make recommendations that could including sentencing changes and expanding the use of pretrial diversion programs.

The panel met for the final time Tuesday and will submit recommendations to state lawmakers ahead of the legislative session that begins Feb. 5.

State Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican from Alabaster, said he expects a package of four to five bills to be introduced in the session. He said the topics will include creating additional oversight of the state prison system, making changes to the habitual offender act, making pretrial diversion programs more available and improving reentry programs.

“You will see a heavy emphasis on how we do diversion programs,” said Ward. “It shouldn’t be a pay-to-play system.”

Ward told the group that he went through a pretrial diversion program after a drunken driving arrest. Participating in the program cost him about $2,000, he said.

“I was lucky because I had the means to do so, but there are a lot of people who couldn’t. And that’s not right,” Ward said.

At least one member of the group said lawmakers need to consider funding for the programs they want to do.

“What flow of income are we going to have to pay for diversion programs, to pay for drug treatment, to pay for mental health care?” asked Republican Rep. Jim Hill, a retired circuit judge, according to al.com.

“All these things are expensive. And all these things have to be paid for. I think for us to look at here’s what we need to do and not look at here’s how we’re going to fund it, we’ve got to be careful, it could turn into an academic exercise that doesn’t really yield any practical results.”

Ivey created the study commission last year after the Department of Justice issued a report condemning Alabama prisons for excessive levels of violence and inmate deaths and a critical staffing shortage. The Justice Department threatened to file a lawsuit against the state unless the problems were addressed.

Alabamians for Fair Justice, an advocacy group that includes inmate family members, held a rally outside the Department of Corrections ahead of the Tuesday meeting.

Chanting, “enough is enough,” they said the state has not done enough to address the homicides, suicides and corruption behind bars. Statistics show that deadly violence rose in Alabama prisons last year despite a national spotlight on the system’s troubles.

The Fair Justice group says 29 inmates died from preventable deaths in 2019, including homicides, overdoses and suicides

“If we’d really invest in people, then we wouldn’t have these problems and 29 deaths under your watch, commissioner,” Kenneth Glasgow, a spokesman with the organization said in reference to Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn.

Leesha Thomas’ husband is in Saint Clair Correctional Facility, and she has other loved ones in different prisons. She said she fears for their safety every day.

“I’m tired of this. I want to see some changes,” Thomas said.

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