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Alabama launches initiative to reduce prison overcrowding

By Gary Lloyd

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley on Tuesday announced the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, a comprehensive study of the state’s criminal justice system that will identify ways to implement more cost effective criminal justice policies.

The Council of State Governments will lead Alabama’s effort with the JRI process.

“The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is an opportunity for Alabama to examine the criminal justice system in order to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety,” Bentley said. “The number of inmates incarcerated in Alabama has significantly increased over the last decade. With the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we have an opportunity to examine areas to maximize efforts in the criminal justice system that will benefit our Department of Corrections. By participating in the study, we will have a detailed understanding of drivers behind Alabama’s prison population growth and identify ways to reduce growth.”

Gov. Robert Bentley
file photo by Ron Burkett

The number of people incarcerated in Alabama has increased significantly over the last decade. Alabama prisons currently operate at approximately 190 percent of capacity, housing more than 25,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold approximately 13,000. The cost of corrections consumes a large share of Alabama’s general fund budget, depleting resources for other parts of the criminal justice system, like probation and parole supervision and community-based drug treatment, which can reduce recidivism at a lower cost. The Department of Corrections currently spends the lowest amount of any state in the country to house inmates. Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said participating in the JRI is a unique opportunity to focus on making Alabama’s criminal justice system more efficient.

“No one strategy or group alone is going to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system. In order to make significant and long-lasting improvements, it is going to take a host of stakeholders and partners working together on dynamic, evidence-based solutions,” Thomas said. “Alabama’s participation in this Justice Reinvestment Initiative represents its willingness to devote the time and energy necessary to make those improvements. The Alabama Department of Corrections is pleased to be a part of this process and eager to work with the other participants toward transforming the state’s overall criminal justice system.”

The Prison Reform Task Force, a group composed of nearly 30 state policymakers and practitioners, will guide Alabama’s justice reinvestment process toward reducing prison crowding, containing corrections costs and reinvesting in strategies to bolster public safety. The task force held its first meeting Tuesday, with plans to begin examining criminal justice trends, review successful approaches used by other states facing similar challenges and identify key areas to explore during the study. Bentley appointed State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, to serve as chair of the task force.

The Prison Reform Task Force will work with the CSG Justice Center, which, in partnership with the U.S. Department of Justice’s Bureau of Justice Assistance and The Pew Charitable Trusts will carry out the analysis and assist the task force in developing a policy framework for addressing the state’s corrections challenges.

“We applaud the leadership Alabama officials are demonstrating to advance the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in their state,” said Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Denise E. O’Donnell. “By launching this project and establishing an inter-branch task force, Alabama becomes the 21st state to take important steps through the JRI toward creating new justice reform policies grounded in research and state-specific data that will improve community safety.”

The CSG Justice Center will collaborate with stakeholder groups at the state and county level, including circuit court judges, district attorneys, public offenders, law enforcement executives and victim advocates.

“It is no secret that Alabama’s prison system is in a crisis,” Chief Justice Roy Moore said. “The struggles our state faces with prison population, sentencing proportionality, and victim restitution strain not only the resources of our corrections system, but also our overworked court system. The judiciary interfaces every day with criminal offenders on either side of the prison bars, so I look forward to working with leaders from all branches of our state government, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to improve our prison system. Together I believe we can more perfectly fulfill the purpose of Alabama’s Constitution: ‘to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.’”

The Prison Reform Task Force will meet routinely between June and December, and is expected to have policy options ready for the Legislature to consider in 2015.

Contact Gary Lloyd at and follow him on Twitter @GaryALloyd.

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