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Inmates at Tutwiler Prison for Women in Wetumpka, Ala.

Beat the Feds

Alabama pitches prison reform as a states' rights issue.

Alabama is in the midst of an ambitious reimagining of its criminal justice system, with motivation from an unlikely place: California. “The situation had gotten so bad, reading the Plata decision, I realized that we were really heading down the exact same road,” said Cam Ward, a Republican state senator.

Ward was referring to Brown v. Plata, the landmark 2011 decision in which the Supreme Court ordered California to reduce its prison population by more than 30,000 inmates within two years. The court held that the overcrowding was so bad — prisons were at double their capacity, even after years of litigation and court orders — that it constituted cruel and unusual punishment.

“I heard what the federal government did to California when they came in,” said another state senator, Vivian Figures, a Democrat from Mobile. “The ultimate goal is that we do what we have to do so that the federal government does not come in to mandate what we do.”

Alabama’s prisons resemble California’s, circa 2011. At 190 percent design capacity, Alabama’s lockup is the most crowded — and among the most dysfunctional — in the nation. Two major federal lawsuits are pending against the Alabama Department of Corrections. The Equal Justice Initiative’s alleges a culture of violence that has led to a half-dozen deaths in custody and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s accuses the prisons of providing constitutionally inadequate health care. A Department of Justice investigation found rampant sexual abuse of inmates by guards at one of the state’s women’s prisons. The threat of federal intervention looms.

Ward and others created a state Prison Reform Task Force last year as a way to tackle the state’s prison overcrowding problem. “If we really are anti-federal government like we say, then we’d better fix it before they do,” said Ward.

In addition to Ward and Figures, the task force includes all the major players in the state’s criminal justice system, including the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, the corrections commissioner, several key District Attorneys, and the head of the influential local victims organization. They invited the Council on State Governments Justice Center, as part of its Justice Reinvestment Initiative, to research Alabama’s criminal justice system and make suggestions for sweeping reforms.

The Task Force isn’t Alabama’s first attempt at prison reform. Most notably, in 2011, a coalition headed by the state’s then–chief justice, Democrat Sue Bell Cobb, partnered with the Vera Institute to develop a set of policy recommendations which were largely ignored. These included creating a new class of low-level non-violent felonies, subject to less prison time, and imposing mandatory re-entry supervision for prisoners at the end of their sentences. But Ward and others hope this round will fare better. First, because of California. And second, because of Ward. “If he would have had a ‘D’ next to his name, it wouldn’t have happened,” said Bennet Wright, a member of the state’s sentencing commission who also sits on the task force.

“When the Democrats propose those efforts, it comes down to, ‘Oh, Democrats are being soft on crime,’” Ward said. “When a Republican or conservative does it — it’s not fair, the stigma — but everybody kind of all of a sudden takes notice.”

Prison reform might be a hard sell in a state with a long history of fiscal conservatism and a hard-line stance towards criminals. But Brown v. Plata provides lawmakers with political cover. “I tell [voters], ‘we spend less than anybody in the United States on our prisons. If we don’t dramatically reform the system, then, guess what. We’re going to spend ten times what we’re spending now. And a federal court will make us do it,’” Ward said. “It does motivate them to a degree.”