October 4, 2021, by Kimberly Tsoukalas | LHC Program Coordinator
Alabama’s Department of Corrections operates the prison system for one of the highest rates of incarceration per capita in the United States, with 938 per 100,000 residents residing in jails, prisons, or other correctional facilities. Additionally, the United States, and subsequently Alabama, use the prison system as a default response to criminal activity with upwards of 70% of convictions resulting in incarceration, many of which are for non-violent offenses.
The massive number of incarcerated persons has led to overcrowded and underequipped facilities. Last month, the Alabama Legislature passed HB4, HB5, and HB6 which would allocate funds for the construction of new, state-of-the-art prison systems in the state. However, it fails to address the root of the problem of overpopulation – over sentencing.
In 2015, Alabama signed Code 15-22-26.2 into law, which mandated supervised probation for non-violent offenders:
(1) If the defendant is sentenced to a period of five years or less, he or she shall be released to supervision by the Board of Pardons and Paroles no less than three months and no more than five months prior to the defendant’s release date;
(2) If the defendant is sentenced to a period of more than five years but less than 10 years, he or she shall be released to supervision by the Board of Pardons and Paroles no less than six months and no more than nine months prior to the defendant’s release date; or
(3) If the defendant is sentenced to a period of 10 years or more, he or she shall be released to supervision by the Board of Pardons and Paroles no less than 12 months and no more than 24 months prior to the defendant’s release date.
However, this legislation only applied to individuals who are sentenced after the law went into effect.
Proposed by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, HB2 retroactively applies the mandated probationary period to individuals who were sentenced before 2015. It maintained the same probationary structure and restrictions, such as not being applicable to child sex offenders. The bill was one of two proposed pieces of legislation from Governor Kay Ivey focusing on prison sentencing reform.
While this legislation is intended to impact the overcrowding and limited resources of the Alabama prison system, it will have long-term health impacts for inmates, prison staff, and the community. According to researchers at Brown University, prisoner health is a volatile public health issue as correctional facilities often lack the resources to provide adequate healthcare. The majority of inmates will eventually return to their communities, bringing their health conditions with them.
The longer an inmate spends incarcerated, the greater their chances of disease, mental health issues, and chronic illness. The National Institute of Health lists having poor ventilation, limited opportunities for exercise, high levels of stress, poor sanitation, infestations with bugs and vermin, poor nutrition, tension, noise, lack of privacy, and lack of family support as contributing factors in poor inmate health.
Additionally, while HB2 works to get inmates out of prison facilities faster, increasing the number of prisoners granted mandated probationary periods decreases recidivism by as much as 30% when compared to end-of-sentence release, or fulfilling the entirety of their sentence in a correctional facility. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, “thoughtful and expanded parole remains the most effective mechanism for reducing the prison population without undermining public safety.”
In addition to the retroactive sentencing guidelines, the bill also ensures that inmates will be given a state-issued photo identification card, social security card, and birth certificate upon their release, a key hurdle in obtaining employment for many inmates, along with appropriate clothing and public transportation.
Many organizations have advocated for prison reforms, including the EJI, over the last decade; however, the bill has received criticism within the state, particularly from Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, who stated that law will only affect a few hundred inmates and doesn’t work to address the overall issue of overcrowding.
Governor Kay Ivey has already signed the legislation into law. It will go into effect on January 31, 2023. If you want to make your voice heard on this or future legislation, click here to identify your elected officials.
Want to learn more about Alabama prison reform? We recommend following these organizations:
Equal Justice Initiative
Covid Prison Project