cam ward

Alabama and Mississippi share many wonderful attributes, from conservative values to friendly people and the best college football on the planet. However, our states also share a common predicament: overcrowded prisons. As Chairman of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee, I work overtime to address this challenge while protecting public safety.

Despite my efforts and those of so many of my fellow Alabama leaders, I regrettably cannot advise Mississippi to follow Alabama’s path. Alabama continues to struggle with overcrowding that has reached 167 percent of capacity as well as 19 homicides and suicides in 2019.

Whatever you think about those in prison, both of our states have a constitutional obligation to provide safe and sanitary conditions. Since 2015, Alabama’s failure to do so has landed us in the crosshairs of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), which is the worst place to be other than on the opposite sideline from Nick Saban.

This means Alabama faces the prospect of unelected federal judges, rather than elected lawmakers, making decisions on what Alabama must do. These federal edicts, such as requiring Alabama taxpayers to pay for 500 additional corrections officers, are not without justification from the standpoint of curbing prison violence, but they are costly and usurp the traditional role of elected officials. Yet the millions required to hire these new officers is just the tip of the iceberg facing Alabama taxpayers, as we now face nearly $2 billion in costs to build new prisons that would alleviate crowding and improve conditions.

One thing that is important for both Alabama and Mississippi lawmakers to keep in mind- both of our states have tried to build our way out of this crisis before, and it was an expensive mistake for both states. I am insisting that construction must be paired with sensible reforms so we don’t find ourselves in this mess again.

Unfortunately, Mississippi faces a similar challenge, with an even higher rate of incarceration than Alabama. Take my word, it can and should act now to avoid having its own Department of Justice investigation turn into a costly federal consent decree. In early February, the DOJ announced an investigation of the state’s Parchman prison after the deaths of 50 people in Mississippi prisons since December. Inmates are shockingly resorting to setting fires to get medical help.

Arson must be punished, but Mississippians must also hold their elected officials’ feet to the fire for extinguishing this crisis. Reviving Senate Bill 2123, which was recently vetoed by Governor Reeves, could go a long way to addressing overcrowding in a cost-effective and safe manner.

The bill is a commonsense public safety approach to parole and rehabilitation. The changes to parole eligibility made by this bill simply mean that those sentenced before House Bill 585 in 2014 will be eligible at the same time than those sentenced since 2014.

Senate Bill 2123 also presented a parole opportunity for geriatric prisoners. The data overwhelmingly confirms that crimes are disproportionately committed by younger people. Geriatric prisoners also represent a significantly increased expense to the state because of failing health.

Regardless of how much time is served, our prisons must focus on increasing the odds that those who are released will be law-abiding and successful. That’s why Senate Bill 2123 creates case plans specifying program and treatment requirements that are achievable by the prisoner’s parole eligibility date. The legislation requires that these case plans be in place within 90 days of intake, ensuring that rehabilitation efforts can begin promptly.

It is also important to remember what Senate Bill 2123 does not do. Those convicted of the most serious offenses like capital murder and sex offenses will remain ineligible for parole. It does not guarantee release of any prisoner. It’s a tool, plain and simply.

Its passage would demonstrate to the Department of Justice that Mississippi takes the DOJ investigation seriously and is well aware of the incredible potential cost of doing nothing.

Like Governor Reeves, I’m a conservative governing in a conservative state. Like Governor Reeves, public safety is my number one priority. Like Governor Reeves, I wholeheartedly support law enforcement. These things are not at odds with smart prison reforms like Senate Bill 2123. Indeed, we saw President Trump usher through similar smart criminal justice reforms with the federal First Step Act in 2018.

Additionally, many conservative organizations support Senate Bill 2123, including Empower Mississippi, Right on Crime, the American Conservative Union, the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, and Americans for Prosperity Mississippi.

As the legislature considers whether to pursue override and Governor Reeves considers how to address an unsolved for prison crisis, I’d invite both to look over to their neighbors in Alabama to see what can happen when the federal government gets tired of waiting.

Mississippi is facing a prison crisis during a pandemic at a time when disorder has gripped some of America’s largest cities. However, rather than punt to the federal government, Mississippi must tackle this challenge head on. Alabama will be rooting you on as we hopefully do the same.

CAM WARD is an Alabama State Senator and Chairman of the Alabama Senate Judiciary Committee.

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