Folks, taking care of prisoners is not a popular political issue. However, every so often Alabama politicians pragmatically have to acquiesce to the mandates of federal judges and grant our transgressing citizens their rights as determined by the courts.

Federal courts have determined our felons deserve the rights to adequate imprisonment. You just cannot log them in, lock them up and give them a basic bunk and rations three times a day.  Courts want them to have sufficient space and access to mental health care.

Some state prison systems have come under a federal court order and been given instructions on how to run their prisons and how to treat prisoners without regard to how much it costs. We in Alabama know that all too well. We went down that road a few years ago with Judge Frank Johnson.

We are headed in the same direction again. Alabama, like many states, has prison overcrowding and violence problems. Just as the legislature began preparing its budgets for the coming year, the Department of Justice, with all our U.S. Attorneys in concurrence, sent Alabama a clear message the state’s overcrowded and understaffed correctional system is in incredibly poor physical shape.  

In a precise outline, the DOJ clearly defines the remedies the state must take to avoid federal intervention. This detailed report focuses on the most acute problems — sexual abuse, drug trade and extortion, and the lack of adequate mental health for prisoners which is causing a high suicide rate. Federal investigators clearly said the prisons are so dangerous there is reasonable cause to believe that the state is in violation of the U.S. Constitution.

The DOJ’s outline clarified to the state the overcrowding problem will and should be addressed by additional prisons. However, the report further said new facilities will not resolve the contributing factors to the overall unconstitutional conditions.

Judge Myron Thompson has been overseeing the mental health issues in the prisons for several years. The legislature has shown Thompson a good faith effort toward remedying our prison shortcomings and he has responded with leniency.

In 2015, the legislature passed criminal justice reform legislation that greatly reduced the number of inmates in Alabama from nearly 200 percent of capacity to about 160 percent.

First on most wish lists for prisons is increasing our staffing levels and improving the pay scale for correctional officers; Alabama prison guards are the lowest paid in the nation. Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), who chairs the General Fund Budget Committee, dropped an extra $80 million into the budget last year for increased prison personnel spending. Even then, as Clouse told a Dothan Chamber Commerce group in February, “People are not beating down doors to be prison guards.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections is asking for a sizeable increase this year to hire additional correctional officers and it will probably be granted.

Gov. Kay Ivey quickly responded to the DOJ report by saying she is committed to working with the federal government to address the problems. The governor said she is proceeding with her plan to build new prisons, which is expected to cost $1 billion. This is validation her initial plan to build new prisons is the right path. The problem in the legislature is paying for and deciding where to locate the new prisons.

Any new plan to build or lease new prisons must be coupled with sentencing reform which is being implemented in many states. This reform must include a revised sentencing structure and some inclusion of alternative sentencing options to the state penitentiary system for offenders who pose no threat of violence to society.

A good example is currently under Alabama law, the second time a person is caught in possession of marijuana they are charged with a felony and then under the “three strikes” law someone could be sent to prison for life after three felony violations for smoking marijuana.  Marijuana use should probably not result in a felony conviction unless it is for trafficking.

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) has done a yeoman’s job leading Alabama’s criminal justice reform efforts. He will be at the forefront of the prisons working with Gov. Ivey.