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After prison report, lawmakers eye criminal justice reform

By KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama lawmakers could revisit criminal justice reform as the state grapples with prison overcrowding and a shortage of corrections officers.

The Department of Justice this month released a scathing report condemning Alabama prisons for excessive violence, inmate deaths, and a critical staffing shortage. State Sen. Cam Ward said sentencing reform measures are expected to be included in a package of legislation — along with pay increases for correctional officers and oversight measures — as the state seeks to avoid a lawsuit from the Justice Department.

“We are going to come with our own plan of what we need to do,” Ward, a Republican from Alabaster said. “Every single thing is on the table — sentencing, forcing DOC to follow some rules, construction. All of it is on the table.”

U.S. Attorney Jay Town, who is helping to lead the negotiations between the state and the Justice Department on remedial measures, sent a memo to state officials outlining possible changes in the state’s criminal code as a “conversation starter.”

The discussion centered on raising thresholds that determine when nonviolent property and drug possession crimes become serious felonies. Alabama has one of the lowest monetary thresholds for when theft becomes a felony, Town said.

“I see a difference between one pill and 20 pills, personally as a prosecutor. I see a difference between $1,500 and $600,” Town said.

The Justice Department last month said that male inmates are being housed in unconstitutional conditions with excessive amounts of violence, sexual abuse, and prisoner deaths. The report listed a chilling litany of examples of violence and said a shortage of staff was one of the significant factors behind the unconstitutional conditions.

“You have to have a better guard to prisoner ratio,” Town said.

There is pending legislation to raise correctional officer pay as the state tries to increase staffing levels to comply with the Department of Justice and a separate federal court order in an ongoing lawsuit over prison mental health care.

Alabama lawmakers in 2015 passed a number of criminal justice reform measures aimed at decreasing the number of non-violent offenders held in Alabama’s prisons. Ward said one possibility is to make some of those changes retroactive. He said there might be people who are in prison on nonviolent property crimes that wouldn’t be there had they been sentenced after 2015.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said some nonviolent offenders might be better served in community corrections programs.

“There is a saying that goes incarcerate the people that we are scared of versus the people that we are mad at,” England said.

A bill already approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee would make possession of less than two ounces of marijuana punishable by a fine instead of jail time.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, the bill’s sponsor, said the Department of Justice report is helping build support for the proposal. The Judiciary Committee approved the bill on an 11-0 vote.

“That is thanks to DOJ,” Singleton said.

Homemade Weapons Seized at Elmore

ATMORE, Ala. (AP) — More than 350 weapons, plus drugs and cellphones, have been seized during a security sweep of a south Alabama prison.

The Department of Corrections said Friday that the items were found at Holman prison near Atmore. The state’s death chamber is located at the maximum-security lockup.

Photos released by the agency show some of the makeshift knives and other weapons seized

A similar search earlier this year at the St. Clair prison in Springville turned up about 160 weapons, nearly 50 cellphones and drugs.

The department has said large-scale searches are being staged to reverse a trend of increased violence in Alabama prisons.

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