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Michael Haugen | May 8, 2015
In an effort to confront a spiraling prison population that is believed to be twice its original maximum capacity, the Alabama legislature on Thursday passed Senate Bill 67–the Justice Reinvestment Act–aimed at sweeping reforms of the state’s failing criminal justice system.
Passed by overwhelming numbers in both chambers, SB 67 revises felony classifications, provides for alternative sentencing options for minor offenses, and additional probation and parole officers. These officers would play a greater role in programs designed to shift lower-level offenders under the new classifications towards personalized, community-based supervision.
For instance, SB 67 would create a new Class D felony classification for minor drug and property offenses. Persons convicted under this new classification could to be diverted, on a case-by-case basis, towards evidence-based community programs designed to rehabilitate them, and to ease re-entry into society.
The bill also has a provision allowing for an alternative sentencing option in certain Class C or Class D offenses. Instead of serving the full sentence in incarceration, the bill would allow sentences to be split between incarceration and supervised community programs proven to reduce the likelihood of recidivism, save taxpayer money, and keep the public safe.
“The idea behind much of the prison reform package is to invest in supervision of people coming out of prison – an approach that has drastically reduced reoffending in other states,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, author of the bill. “We either build $400 million in prisons or spend much less now on a better long-term strategy.”
By addressing Alabama’s overcrowding now, the state hopes to avoid a similar situation that occurred in California, in which a federal court ordered the release of thousands of offenders, holding that such overcrowding violated their constitutional rights.
Former U.S. Speaker of the House and Right of Crime signatory Newt Gingrich has spoken highly of Alabama’s efforts, saying that “this bill is the type of criminal justice reform that has been proven to lower recidivism rates, keep our citizens safer, allow low-level offenders to contribute back into society by lowering penalties for minor non-violent crimes and save taxpayers millions in incarceration costs. It’s time to not only get tougher on crime, but to get smarter.”
The bill now heads to the desk of Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley, who has signaled he will sign it, pending legal review.