Alabama’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded and tremendously under-funded. Facilities designed for 13,500 prisoners hold more than 27,000, and while the state’s resident population grew by less than 20% during the past 25 years, the prison population more than quadrupled. Extremely high incarceration rates and overcrowding are largely due to Alabama’s decades’ old Habitual Felony Offender Act, which exaggerates the length of sentences by up to 10 times what is permitted for first-time offenders. Under the law, an individual who has a previous conviction, and is charged with stealing $3,000, faces the same harsh sentencing range: 10-99 years regardless of whether it’s for drug possession or murder. Among the 10 leading convicted offenses, the top 3 are substance-related. In 2004, more people were admitted to prison for possession of marijuana than for first and second-degree assaults combined.
To address problems within Alabama’s criminal justice system, Governor Robert Bentley announced the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI) in June 2014. In an effort to confront the overcrowding of its prison population, Alabama passed justice reinvestment legislation in 2015. Its provisions include:
In February 2020, Alabama introduced legislation which would expunge criminal records for minor offenses and allow for ex-offenders to have a clean slate. This legislation has yet to pass, but it is a good step toward a more just system.
As a result of these reforms, the prison population fell by 6.4% in 2016 and Alabama’s Department of Corrections security staff fell by 13%. Although Alabama has taken the necessary first steps to reform the state’s justice system, its incarceration rate remains extremely high.
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