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Jones: Prison reform should reduce inmates by 4,513

A sweeping prison reform bill aimed at reducing prison overcrowding gained final approval of the legislature late Thursday, with a rare display of unified support from Republicans, Democrats, and special interest groups from both the left and right.

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, sponsored the bills in the House. He also chairs the House Judiciary Committee, through which the bills passed before reaching the House floor.

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The Senate, which passed its version of the bill last month, concurred with the House version, which now awaits the governor’s signature.

Jones said Thursday night the House version removed special interest items from the bill and cleaned it up.

“It was very important that it be clean, and that it solely address prison reform,” Jones said. “The more you add to (the legislation), the less credibility it has.”

Prison reform was a critical issue for this legislative session because the state is in danger of facing federal intervention for overcrowding. In January, the prison system was at 186 percent of its design capacity. Already, the U.S. Justice Department is investigating sexual violence problems at Tutwiler, the state’s prison for women.

The bill addresses the overcrowding crisis with new investments in parole, probation and supervision; the creation of a Class D felony for relatively minor crimes; limits on prison time and mandatory supervision for those convicted of Class C felonies, and changes to punishments for technical violations of parole.

Jones said it should create an inmate reduction of 4,513 inmates over a three to five-year period of time.

A companion bill also sponsored by Jones strikes out restrictive language on a $60 million bond already in place for a planned correctional facility in Perry County that was never used. With the funds, he said, the state will take a more modern prison approach.

“The policy changes get us a good ways there, but not all the way,” he said. “With the construction money, we should be able to ease crowding in the short-term, and transition prisoners to more modern facilities in the long-term.

“We haves some very old facilities that frankly, we need to start fazing out,” Jones said. “We’ll be transitioning to newer facilities as the (population) numbers come down.”

There also is language in the bill designed to reduce recidivism by allowing a special driver’s license provision for those whose licenses have been suspended, giving them restricted use of driving privileges and allowing them to go to and from work, court and probation officers visits.

“It’s hard to do those things when you can’t drive back and forth,” he said.

Jones said he was very proud that legislators were able to put together a package that had support from the ACLU on the left and the Business Council of Alabama on the right.

“This is the best opportunity we’ve had to work together for a common goal, and take responsibility,” he said. “At the end of the day, we had a bill that was heavily supported by Democrats and Republicans, as well as special interest groups.”

Still ahead for the legislature is a solution to the $250 million gap in funding for next year’s General Fund budget. The prison reform bill also adds expenses to that budget.

“There is a provision in this, in the last section, that makes it very clear that nothing happens unless this is fully funded,” Jones said. “To show how important the funding is, the policy is fully dependent upon funding.”

Gov. Robert Bentley has proposed new taxes to stave off the funding crisis; Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh and proposed gambling proposals that would expand casino gaming and give Alabamians an opportunity to consider a Constitutional Amendment establishing a lottery; still others favor cuts; and the Poarch Creek Indians have offered a $250 million bailout in return for exclusive gaming rights.