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10 things to know as special session begins

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The Alabama Legislature will soon debate and vote on a prison plan that leaders say will address issues with the state’s outdated and crowded facilities and the violence and poor care that has prompted federal investigations and threats of takeovers.

Lawmakers begin meeting Monday afternoon in a special session. Here’s 10 things to know.

Changes to bill expected

Under a draft bill circulated to legislators earlier this month, the first phase of the plan builds two 4,000-bed prisons, estimated by lawmakers to cost $1.2 billion to $1.3 billion, in Elmore and Escambia counties. A new 1,000-bed women’s facility and renovations to three existing men’s prisons would follow in a phase II. A fourth men’s facility is possible in several years under phase three. The bill also closes several prisons.

Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, who is expected to sponsor the bill in the Senate, on Friday said some tweaks to the bill are coming to lock-in support as leadership continues to count votes on for the proposal.

“We’ve tried to identify some hard spots from the feedback from membership,” Albritton, the Senate General Fund chairman, said.

One of those hard spots is the list of prisons in the bill that will be closed. The draft named five to close and left the futures of several to be decided later, but closure is an option. Members with prisons in their districts don’t want to lose the jobs they provide.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get that completely ironed out,” Albritton said. “We’re continuing to work on that.”

He said there have also been concerns about the short list of men’s prisons to be renovated.

“We’re trying to find the political balance, the economic balance and the real-needs balance,” Albritton said.

Construction could start sooner than usual

If the bill is approved and signed by Gov. Kay Ivey as expected, construction on the men’s prisons could begin by early next year. That’s because the bill allows the state to bypass the normal bid rules in selecting the general contractors on the project.  State House leadership has said the two companies likely to get the contracts were vetted in a bid process under Ivey’s original proposal to lease prisons from private developers.

COVID money

Another reason construction may start sooner? Federal COVID-19 relief money. The bill will allow the state to borrow $785 million to build the men’s prisons. But leaders also say they can use about $400 million in American Rescue Plan Act money. More may be used later. 

Some advocacy groups have said new prisons aren’t the best or intended use of the federal funds. 

What doesn’t have a named funding source

Phases two, including the women’s prison, and three renovations in the bill don’t have a dedicated funding stream outlined in the bill. But legislative leadership has said it will be a pay-as-you-go method with funding to include future allocations from the Legislature.

Democrats’ support

It’s Democrats who have pushed for a new women’s prison and they’d like it to get at least the same priority as the men’s sites.

While most of the Democrats in both the House and Senate have not been outright against building new prisons, they have continued to say construction should be paired with more rehabilitation measures and criminal justice reform legislation.

“The buildings won’t stop corruption,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, told ADN. “The buildings will help some but it won’t stop how poorly managed our correction system has been for a long time but specifically the last few years.”

Republicans hold 76 current seats in the 105-member House. Two seats are currently vacant. There are 27 Republicans in the 35-member Senate. While Republicans can run over Democrats to pass bills they want, leadership has said they want this to be a bi-partisan effort.

Reform bills

Separate from the prison construction bill are two reform bills, nods to changing the laws that land non-violent offenders in prison for years. The bills would:

Allow anyone convicted of a non-violent crime to have their sentence re-evaluated under the presumptive sentencing guidelines established in 2013. An inmate’s sentence could be re-considered if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in custody. The decision is up to a judge’s discretion.

Expand the number of inmates who could be released prior to the end of their sentence and placed on supervised release by making a 2015 law retroactive.

Similar bills by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, passed the House easily in the spring but died without votes in the Senate.

Perry County prison purchase

The construction bill also allows for the purchase or lease of a privately owned, empty 730-bed prison in Perry County. If all goes as planned, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles will buy the site — they’re negotiating now — and have it ready to house parolees who commit technical violations — not new crimes — by mid-2022. Bureau Director Cam Ward has told Alabama Daily News he’d eventually like the site to offer rehabilitation and job training opportunities. 

They’ll move quickly

Regular spring legislative sessions last more than three months. This one could be over in less than a week.

It takes five calendar days to get a bill through the Legislature and with only a few in the governor’s call, legislative leadership has said they hope to be done by Friday or Saturday.

Because of the expected speed of the session, bills outside the governor’s call aren’t expected to get much traction. While lawmakers are welcome to file bills on any subject important to them, those outside the call have a higher hurdle to clear. In a regular session a simple majority wins passage, in a special two-thirds is required.

Albritton said controversial bills will be filed.

“This is an election year,” Albritton said. “… There will be speeches made to high heaven at the podium. We will rely on the speaker and senate president pro tem when necessary. Our intent is to sine die hopefully Friday.”

How to watch

After public access to the State House was restricted in the 2020 and 2021 regular sessions, the building is largely open this session. Those who aren’t vaccinated against COVID-19 are asked to wear masks.

Like last session, committee meetings will be live streamed, as is action on the House and Senate floors.

Links to the live streams can be found here.

One of two specials

Regardless of what happens in the next week, lawmakers will be back in the State House likely in late October or early November to redraw the state’s congressional, legislative and state board of education districts based on the 2020 census data. 

State House staff estimates specials cost about $364,000.

Alabama Daily News reporter Caroline Beck contributed to this report.


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