(Left to right) Stephen Wallace, Shay Farlley, K.A. Turner, Shay Golden and Charlotte Morrison discuss how to deal with Alabama’s crowded prisons. Photo by Jane Goodman.
Comer Auditorium hosted a five person panel discussion on prison reform the night of Feb. 26. The panelists – Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace, Alabama Appleseed Legal Director Shay Farley, Alabama Media Group Director of Opinion and Commentary K.A. Turner and attorneys Shay Golden and Charlotte Morrison – are all part of a task force to help find a solution to the overcrowding of Alabama prisons.
Wallace began the discussion by informing the audience that the state’s prisons are filled to almost double capacity, with $400 million dollars spent per prisoner. Emphasizing that there isn’t a simple solution to the problem, he introduced the three proposals the task force has made for what can and should be done.
The first proposal dealt with parole reform. According to Farley, when a prisoner is denied parole, it’s because they’re being evaluated the same way they were when they were originally sentenced.
Morrison encourages that the system “look at narratives and not boxes” when making their decision. The task force has proposed that whether or not a prisoner is paroled should be based on how they’ve changed.
In addition, mandated supervised release was also suggested. This way the prisoner will still be under the supervision of a parole officer but will be able to rejoin society by getting a job and finding a place to live.
Next, because of the lack of space in the prisons, the task force wants to make sure that the people being sent away actually need to be in prison. Or as Wallace put it, “Who are we mad at, and who really needs to go to prison?”
There are three classes for felony offenses: A, B and C, with A being the highest felony. The task force wants to implement a new class, D, for offenses like drug possession. Drug related offenses made up 31 percent of the prison sentences in 2014, so if the class D offense was put into use, it would decrease the prison population by at least a small degree. The last proposal echoed the first one about parole. It was suggested that prisoners be held accountable for their actions when they’re released. This proposition would have to be specifically fixed to fit the crime the prisoner committed, but they wouldn’t be supervised as much. With the mandated supervised release, they will still be checked on by their parole officer, but if they commit a crime again, they will be sent back to prison.
Throughout the evening, the panelists gave the students in the audience the call to action to exercise their voting rights and their influence on the justice system. According to Turner, the only legislation related to prisons that had been presented before the task force assembled was whether or not the state could use the electric chair over lethal injection. She went on to explain that in situations like these where reform is called for, it only takes a few people writing letters to their representatives to get the issue noticed.Sen. Cam Ward of Alabaster has drafted a bill for prison reform that he plans to present to the state legislature during its next session. In an interview with al.com, Ward said that he thinks the bill has a 60 to 70 percent chance of being passed.