Ward: Prison overcrowding must be addressed

Published 6:42 pm Friday, January 20, 2012

According to State Sen. Cam Ward, Alabama’s general fund, which pays for everything in the state but schools, is running about 20 percent short of what was budgeted.

Ward has said he would not support an idea Gov. Robert Bentley floated earlier this month to allow the state to dip into dollars set aside for education. Instead, the money can be found elsewhere, he said.

Ward listed reforming Medicaid and clamping down on fraud in the system as one place to save money.

Needed changes in Alabama’s prison system is another place to save — changes the state might be forced to make.

Ward said Alabama prisons are at 193 percent capacity, and it’s a real possibility that the federal government may take over the system if that number isn’t reduced.

One way to do that is to build more prisons, which the state can’t afford to do at $100 million per prison, Ward said.

The only other way to lower the capacity is to reduce prison populations through rehabilitation programs for first-time, non-violent offenders.

The state needs to start using under-utilized rehabilitation programs for first-time drug offenders, Ward said.

“They shouldn’t be taking up a prison place reserved for a violent person — a murderer, a rapist,” Ward said.

Using the rehabilitation programs would allow the corrections system to make sure violent criminals stay locked up.

“(We need to) make sure people are being punished for their crimes, and violent offenders need to spend the entire amount of their sentence in prison,” Ward said.

But being smarter in using drug courts and judge-supervised rehab will lower the prison populations, Ward said.

Doing so would allow the sate to be “tougher on crime by keeping violated offenders locked up longer.”

But the bottom line is something must happen sooner than later. A lawsuit brought by the federal government because of overcrowding, which recently happened in California, is likely inevitable if the numbers aren’t lowered, Ward said.

Alabama’s prisons are already more crowded than California’s at the time the lawsuit was brought in that state.

“A lawsuit of this nature would cost us hundreds of millions,” said Ward, who chairs the Senate’s Judiciary Committee. “It really is a problem … as lawmakers we have allowed this to go on too long.”