Alabama Eyes Justice Reforms


Last week, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed a slate of justice reforms aimed at keeping more people out of jail, and cutting costs. This week a separate federal agreement acted as a follow on to those efforts, by establishing a cultural and operational reform plan for a woman’s prison that recently came under investigation.

Under the terms of the justice reform bill signed last week, Alabama aims to cut the state’s prison population by more than 4,200 people, avert more than $380 million in future costs and provide supervision for 3,000 more people upon release from prison.

The bills include policies and plans aimed at strengthening community-based supervision, prioritizing prison space for people convicted of violent and dangerous crimes, and promoting evidence-based services and treatment for people receiving supervision in the community. The legislation was the result of a justice reform task force put in place last year by the governor.

The task force also recommended that the state invest $26 million in FY2016 and more than $25 million annually for FY2017 through FY2021, including funds for evidence-based substance use treatment and recidivism-reduction programming for people on supervision in the community.

For states that can successfully implement justice reforms, the benefits to residents and the state budget can be immediate. Last year some 17 states managed justice reform packages resulting in a significant cost savings and a reduction in the case load going through court systems. Total projected savings across all 17 states amount to as much as $4.6 billion, according to a report from the Urban Institute.

In South Carolina – one of the 17 states – corrections spending rose 500% over the past 25 years, and its prison population tripled. Increased housing of nonviolent offenders, a growing number of returning parolees and probationers, and declining use of parole drove this growth. The state responded with reforms such as strengthening supervision and enhancing parole release decision making. Since implementing the reforms, the state has saved more than $7 million and prevented the return of 1,000 probationers and parolees to prison.

A separate federal agreement with Alabama was announced yesterday, and will seek reforms at a specific facility. The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) has reached a cooperative agreement with the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) to reform practices at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka. The agreement follows an investigation into the practices going on at the prison after it was revealed that a significant number of inmates had been subject to sexual abuse and harassment.

DOJ filed suit against Alabama before the agreement, and said in the complaint that the treatment at the prison violated the constitutional rights of the inmates. The agreement requires ADOC to be in compliance with the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA) National Standards by reforming policies and procedures designed to prevent, detect, and respond to sexual misconduct among correctional employees and inmates.

A new camera system has also been put in place to monitor activities happening inside the prison. Gender-responsive and trauma-informed operational practices, and the establishment of additional operational and training practices for protecting inmates from unreasonable risk of harm have all been implemented.

To manage the implementation of the agreement, ADOC and DOJ jointly selected an independent monitor who will provide technical assistance to ADOC and Tutwiler in addition to assessing the department’s compliance.

“The issues at Tutwiler are not new, but our focus over the last three years has been to address them, ensuring the facility is a safe place for both inmates and staff,” Governor Bentley said.

The full agreement is available here.