Criminal justice study group offers Alabama a chance to set the right course toward reform

By Dev Wakeley
Posted 9/27/19

Alabama needs a criminal justice system that values the lives and well-being of everyone involved. Our state should treat people fairly, apply punishment humanely and focus on restoring offenders to …

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Criminal justice study group offers Alabama a chance to set the right course toward reform

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Alabama needs a criminal justice system that values the lives and well-being of everyone involved. Our state should treat people fairly, apply punishment humanely and focus on restoring offenders to productive roles in society.

Alabama Arise is closely monitoring the Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy that Gov. Kay Ivey appointed this summer. We hope the group can identify and endorse reforms needed to modernize Alabama’s criminal justice system.

Sentencing reform and recidivism reduction through improved services and re-entry programs will be two vital steps toward real change. And it will be crucial to ensure that people who were incarcerated have voices in identifying needs and developing policy.

Expanding Medicaid, mental health services would reduce prison populations

Medicaid expansion is an essential part of Alabama’s prison reform solution. Expansion would reduce financial strain on prisons and strengthen safeguards against recidivism. On the first count, Medicaid would allow prisoners who are hospitalized to receive Medicaid coverage. This would drastically reduce state costs if an inmate develops a serious illness or becomes a victim of the shockingly high levels of violence in state prisons.

Further, Alabama could use Medicaid expansion to provide mental health and substance use disorder treatment in communities with a chronic lack of such resources. Many convictions result from underlying mental health or substance use problems that go untreated. Stronger investments in mental health and addiction treatment could prevent many people from entering the criminal justice system in the first place. And Medicaid expansion would allow Alabama to expand mental health services tenfold with little or no increase in state cost.

Sentencing reform, alternative courts would ease burdens on Alabama’s criminal justice system

Many Alabama courts impose large fines and overly punitive sentences for relatively minor crimes. These measures, coupled with unreasonably high economic consequences for convictions, often ruin people’s ability to start over after a conviction.

The Legislature recently adopted some beneficial changes to modernize sentencing practices. But the state still needs other significant improvements to ensure proportionality and justice. For instance, Alabama’s habitual offender law can lead to manifestly unjust results. The law allows people with previous convictions to be sentenced to life in prison for a nonviolent offense. And people too often receive a prison sentence even when sentencing guidelines say community correction programs are more appropriate.

Fixing these shortcomings would save money and mitigate prison overcrowding. And it would reduce the odds that a minor offense would destroy someone’s life.

The study group also should consider the benefits that problem-solving courts provide to both offenders and the state. Both drug courts and mental health courts are proven ways to reduce recidivism significantly – and therefore reduce state costs.

These programs can keep life-altering convictions from limiting a person’s prospects by dismissing charges upon completion of the assigned program. But these programs require funding, and no uniform statewide eligibility criteria exist for either drug or mental health courts.

The study group should recommend expanding and standardizing the use of these proven, efficient programs. And Medicaid expansion would strengthen the community-based services needed to fulfill the mandates of alternative sentencing.

Alabama can create a criminal justice system that works for everyone

Thousands of Alabamians would have better lives if our state updates and improves its criminal justice system. And people who have been involved in the system have valuable insight into ways it can improve. In particular, people who were formerly incarcerated can help identify needed improvements and recommend ways to avoid some pitfalls of current operations.

The study group has a chance to make desperately needed strides toward reform before the next legislative session. The solution must be broader than just building new prisons while keeping outdated sentencing procedures and resource allocations.

Doing the bare minimum to avoid federal oversight would be a disservice to our state. The study group’s recommendations should offer a vision of a fully functional criminal justice system in Alabama. With full consideration of the available options and a willingness to recommend bold, far-reaching reforms, the study group can put Alabama on the right path toward dignity, equity and justice for all.

Dev Wakeley is a policy analyst at Alabama Arise, a nonprofit, nonpartisan coalition of congregations, organizations and individuals promoting public policies to improve the lives of Alabamians with low incomes. Email: dev@alarise.org.