House Judiciary Chairman Says Vital Prison Reform is Halfway Finished

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones spoke to the Business Council of Alabama’s Governmental Affairs Committee today and outlined the 2015 prison reform effort that includes vital funding that is near final passage.

Jones, R-Andalusia, said the primary focus this year of the House and Senate Judiciary Committees has been enacting “multi-faceted” corrections reform based on recommendations of a prison reform task force. The result is successful passage of SB 67 sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SB 67 was designed to reduce the state prison system’s capacity from about 190 percent to about 160 percent over five years. The prison reform bill changed some criminal penalties, revised sentencing guidelines, and created alternative community correction programs.

The House and Senate passed the bill with overwhelming bipartisan support and it became law earlier this month.

The Business Council of Alabama supported the bill because it will help lower the inmate population over the next five years and stave off costly federal oversight of Alabama’s prisons. The average prison census was 194 percent of design capacity last year.

“The worst thing we could possibly do is to wait for federal forces to come in and take it over,” Jones said. “We would have lost control at that point and it would cost hundreds of millions of dollars and we would have no control over who was released from prison. Frankly it would be irresponsible to wait until that point.”

Prison reform is of vital interest to Alabama as the real threat of a federal takeover of prisons could result in more than $400 million in new taxes to build additional capacity.

The second part of the reform effort is in the Senate, HB 420 sponsored by Jones. It would authorize the Corrections Institute Finance Authority to issue up to $60 million in additional bonds for prison construction.

The bill on the Senate calendar is required in order to upgrade facilities, Jones said.

The Department of Corrections each year is a major recipient of General Fund appropriations. This year the House General Fund budget would cut prisons by 5 percent but the budget contains a conditional appropriation of $25.7 million, which includes $6 million for prison reform.

Jones was a supporter of innovator liability legislation that was a major focus of the BCA’s 2015 legislative agenda. The bill eliminates the threat of lawsuits over a product that a manufacturer did not design, make, sell, or lease. The bill, SB 80 also by Ward, became law on May 1 and takes effect in six months.

The BCA’s Tuesday morning briefings are held each week during the legislative session and feature legislative and administration officials who discuss topics of interest to Alabama’s business community.

-Dana Beyerle

Rep. Jones also sat down with Dana Beyerle and Leah Garner to speak about prison reform efforts and the House Judiciary committee for the Business Council of Alabama’s Two-Minute Tuesdays.