Right on Crime senior fellow Jerry Madden has been present and working in Alabama recently, discussing criminal justice reform with that state’s legislators, media and activists. On Tuesday, the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force approved policy recommendations for reducing their prison population, and now Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who is also the chairman of the task force, wants to introduce legislation that will bring these recommendations into being. That same day, Governor Robert Bentley delivered his State of the State address and expounded upon the crisis. These changes in course are coming just in time for the state’s beleaguered criminal justice system.

Alabama has long had trouble with overcrowding in its system. Today the state’s prisons are operating at almost double their capacity, at 187 percent of their intended population. This causes many concerns, preeminently for safety. Guards are not safe from inmates, and inmates are not safe from guards or each other. Also concerning, with prisons working overtime just to supervise the offenders, they are not able to provide any form of educational, vocational, or treatment that will lower the number of later offenses committed.

The recommendations are aimed at reducing overcrowding by improving recidivism numbers and prioritizing prison space for violent offenders. They focus strengthening supervision during parole and probation, creating new classifications for low-level offenders in order to divert them to alternative options, and finally holding prisoners accountable before and after release by ensuring that each released prisoner would be supervised during their reentry.

Senator Ward acknowledges that these changes will cost the taxpayers now, and they are estimated to require 25 million a year over the next five years, but he urges the state to look to their future. Without immediate state intervention, the taxpayers will soon be looking at either funding new prisons to ease the overcrowding – estimated to cost between 600 and 700 million – or having the federal government step in and requiring changes as it did in California.

As Governor Bentley acknowledged in his SOTS address:

“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. As leaders of this state, chosen by the people we serve, we are elected to fix problems, not pass them on to someone else, to a future generation. The problems we must tackle may have been decades in the making, but it is up to us to solve them today.”

However, these changes are only predicted to bring the prison population to 139 percent capacity over the next five years. The legislature needs to continue to look at the sentencing structures that helped cause the overcrowding in the first place.