At the end of the first 2021 special session on Oct. 1, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey signed a package of bills that will authorize the financing and construction of two new 4,000-bed megaprisons, upgrades to a few existing prisons, and one minor – though impactful – piece of criminal legal reform.
The total construction package, currently estimated at $1.3 billion, does nothing to address the crises inside Alabama’s prisons. As we pointed out in our last blog post on this subject, the U.S. Department of Justice made it clear, before suing the state, that brick and mortar won’t solve the systemic abuses in the Alabama Department of Corrections: excessive force used by guards against incarcerated people, rampant drug use, sexual assaults, deaths going uninvestigated and more. And yet, the Alabama Legislature and the governor turned a blind eye to reforms that could truly improve these conditions and chose instead to spend our taxpayer money on their billion-dollar boondoggle.
Perhaps most morally objectionable in a week of objectionable acts, the Legislature chose to move forward with the authorization to spend $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act funds – money appropriated by Congress to restore communities impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic – to help finance this prison construction project.
Despite outcries from family members of incarcerated people, advocates, members of Congress and grassroots leaders to reconsider, the funding measure was approved with bipartisan support. Though the legality of this move is still in question (the White House and Treasury have yet to comment), one thing is obvious: Using money meant to help our small businesses, save our rural hospitals, provide personal protective equipment for our elementary school teachers and more to instead build cages for our neighbors is simply unconscionable.
Despite these grave governmental failures, there was one small piece of criminal legal reform passed during the special session that will impact incarcerated people nearing the end of their sentences. As the Alabama Parole Board continues to deny nearly everyone eligible for parole, one provision of a 2015 criminal justice reform package will now be made retroactive to allow more people to be released under mandatory supervision before the end of their sentence.
This means that an estimated 2,000 to 2,300 incarcerated people will be released months early (three months to 12 months, depending on their sentence) to serve the remainder of their time under supervision of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons & Paroles. Though this does not address the numbers of people currently coming into the correctional system or people serving draconian sentences of life without parole, it does provide relief for people who have found no hope or compassion in the Parole Board.
Another important reform that was rejected by the Legislature was HB 1, a bill that would have allowed an opportunity for resentencing of certain incarcerated people convicted of “nonviolent” offenses in years past when the presumptive sentencing guidelines were not yet in place. (We put “nonviolent” in quotes here, because there are many convictions that Alabama considers “violent” that involve no physical injury). Were these people sentenced today, the length of their time in prison would be much shorter. This proposal would not have automatically released these people but would have given them a pathway to resentencing in front of the judge who originally heard their case in their county of conviction.
And yet, the Alabama Legislature (under the influence of some “tough-on-crime” district attorneys) chose to not even consider this measure beyond a single committee meeting. We attempted, with several of our advocacy partners, to expand eligibility to any person whose crime did not include physical harm or a sex offense, but these efforts failed. Even as drafted, the bill’s demise was a truly lost opportunity that could have given approximately 700 incarcerated people a new lease on life.
As we look toward the 2022 regular legislative session, there’s still much to be done. Alabama has some of the harshest drug and theft of property sentencing laws in the South, the list of crimes considered “violent” by the state of Alabama continues to be one of the longest in the country, the Parole Board has abandoned its call to let people who have worked to improve their lives out of prison, and many elderly and sick incarcerated people have been left to languish with sentences that would be far shorter were they sentenced today. If Alabama is to truly address the crisis in its prisons, these are just a few among the many reforms that must be considered.
Additionally, the fight is not necessarily over on the use of American Rescue Plan Act funds for prison construction. As more members of Congress express concern over this utilization, it is entirely possible that the administration might make clearer its use guidance and exclude this expenditure. If that happens, the Legislature and governor have two options: Abandon this plan or dig deeper into your pockets to replace that $400 million.
Whether or not that happens, only time will tell.
Katie Glenn is a policy associate for the SPLC Action Fund in Alabama.
Photo at top: A special session of the Alabama House of Representatives begins at the State House in Montgomery on Monday, Sept. 27, 2021. (Credit: Jake Crandall/ Montgomery Advertiser via Imagn Content Services, LLC)