Jones: Prisons among top agenda items in 2015

Published 10:45 pm Friday, January 16, 2015

As new chairman of judiciary committee, he’ll likely have key role

When the Alabama Legislature convenes for its 2015 session in March, there are three major issues to be addressed – funding for the General Fund budget; prison overcrowding; and Medicaid.

With a new role in the legislature, Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, will spend a good bit of his time focused on prison issues.

Jones was appointed chairman of the Judiciary Committee in the House of Representatives’ orga-nizational session this past week. He replaced Paul DeMarco of Homewood, who ran for Congress instead of seeking reelection. DeMarco’s bid was unsuccessful.

“I was briefed by CSG on prisons within two hours of being appointed,” Jones said Friday.

The Council of State Governments (CSG), is a region-based forum that fosters the exchange of insights and ideas to help state officials shape public policy. CSG has conducted the background research for a statewide task force led by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, to address the issue of prison overcrowding.

“After meeting with them, I am very encouraged,” Jones said. “They are on the right track.”

Jones predicted legislation will begin with Ward in the Senate.

“Cam has been the front man on this from the beginning,” Jones said. “He and I have already working together.”

The group’s next meeting is a presentation meeting later this month.

“They have truly done some very good work,” Jones said. “One thing I don’t like is trying to effect change based on speculation or philosophical beliefs. This process has taken in a lot of data, a lot of information, and input from stakeholders. They have hard numbers. I’m so happy to hear that’s going to be a part of it. It’s a lot easier to approach the public if you know exactly the impact of it, as opposed to just saying, ‘We believe.’ ”

Jones says he expects to see a well-drafted, well-prepared bill that addresses the whole issue.

“My personal feeling is if we do not take care of this problem ourselves, we will have federal government taking care of it for us, and we don’t want that,” Jones said. “I’d rather take a small dose of medicine I don’t like than have a large dose shoved down our throats (by the feds).”

Ward has said in recent weeks that he thinks the reform process will take three or four years to complete. At present, he said, Alabama’s prison population is nearly twice its designed capacity. He said he expected the first bill to address the state’s underfunded parole system and look for inexpensive ways to reduce the number of ex-cons who return to prison.

Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell also is a member of the task force. He has advocated the construction of more prisons.

Before additional services are added by new legislation, the General Fund budget – which includes corrections – is already projected to have a more than $250 million shortfall. Likewise, any expansion of Medicaid benefits also would further strain that budget.

“In the past when the governor has spoken to us, he said he planned on addressing the issues directly and to be bold,” Jones said. “I’m anxious to see what he will propose in state of the state.”

Jones said he is looking forward to his new role as Judiciary Chairman, and said he couldn’t ask for a better committee. Member include a former circuit judge, a former prosecutor, a civil defense attorney, a civil plaintiff’s attorney, an attorney with expertise in probate and estate work, a police chief, and a former state trooper.

“They all have direct input and knowledge of what we’ll be talking about,” he said. “We take on a lot of complicated issues, and have a high volume of bills. I am excited to be a part and leading it.”

Being a committee chairman gives him an automatic seat on the legislative council, he said, adding that could prove beneficial for his constituents.

Jones also noted his office is moving. The new address and phone numbers will be announced when they are finalized, he said.