Prison reform crucial this session

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 28, 2015

When the Alabama legislature convenes for its 2015 session on Tuesday, prison reform will be at the top of Rep. Mike Jones’ list of priorities.

“Prison reform is probably my No. 1, 2 and 3,” the new chair of the House Judiciary Committee said late Friday.

At present, the Alabama Prison System, which houses 25,810 inmates is at approximately 194 percent of capacity. There are two lawsuits pending against the state regarding the over-population. Jones said not addressing the issues would be tantamount to inviting the Department of Justice to intervene.

“We must address our own problems and accept responsibility for reform,” he said.

Jones said the best part of what is being proposed is that it is research-based.

“We’re not just speculating on what can help and what can’t help,” he said. “A lot of research has been compiled. We’re not reinventing wheels here, we’re looking at what worked somewhere else.”

The reform initiative includes more supervision, especially for inmates who transition out of prison and remain on probation.

“We have a significant group who are in prison because of mental health issues,” he said. “When they are in prison, they are on medication. Literally, the doors are opened, they walk out, and they’re on their own”

The reform proposals include doubling the number of probation officers working in Alabama, and making sure that those with mental health issues are connected with mental health centers when they leave prison.

It also includes training.

“Unless we want them to keep cycling in and out of prison, they’ve got to get a job, and keep a job,” he said. “In some cases, we’re talking about simple life skills, which most of us take for granted.”

Studies show, that in other places, when transition is arranged before inmates are released, the recidivism rates should drop dramatically.

There also has to be more training for those who work in the prison system, and more tools for addressing addiction recovery, he said.

“This is just the beginning of reform,” he said. “But we have to start the ball and get it going.”

Also being considered is more community corrections. Forty-five of Alabama’s 67 counties have community corrections programs; Covington, Coffee and Butler counties are among those who do not. There are two approaches, he said. One is a brick and mortar approach; the other is a program.

“At end of the day, community corrections addresses the lowest level of crimes. You might call them stupidity crimes. People have to take responsibility for actions, education is as much a part of that as the punishment.

“The goal is not to punish offenders to the extent so that trickles through the whole family,” he said. “You want to have them learn, take care of family and go forward.”

The prison population problem, he believes, will be solved with a combination of construction of new facilities coupled with moves to reduce the population.

“Our priorty is the safety of the people,” he said. “There are some people, frankly, neither I nor anybody else wants them to get out of prison.”


Domestic violence

He also has committed to work with First Lady Dianne Bentley to on the issue of domestic violence.

“I am reviewing what Mrs. Bentley wants me to look at on domestic violence,” said Jones, who met with her last week. “She wants better support shelters and better means of funding them. I have gotten a proposed bill, but I have not reviewed it yet.

Jones said the proposals redirect funding, but do not require new taxes.

“She is an impressive lady,” he said of the First Lady. “She very quickly said, ‘It’s not my husband’s issue; it’s my issue.’ ”


Proposed new taxes

As of Friday afternoon, Jones had not had time to review Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed new taxes.

“We’ve all been waiting to see what he would propose,” Jones said, adding there is an “abyssmal hole” in the General Fund budget that will have to be addressed.