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Alabama Prison Reform Task Force works on plan to solve overcrowding

Alabama Senator Cam Ward (abc3340.com)

The pressure is on to fix Alabama's prison system. They're the most overpopulated in the nation at nearly 200 percent capacity. State lawmakers know something must be done this year or the federal government could take over.

Lawmakers on the Prison Reform Task Force met in Columbiana Thursday to continue work on a reform bill for the 2015 legislative session.

Republican State Senator Cam Ward is Chair of the task force. He admits there is a lot is at stake.

"A federal takeover would be absolutely catastrophic for our state," Ward told ABC 33/40.

Ward says that's likely to happen if state lawmakers don't pass major prison reform this year.

"If the federal government takes over, you'll see a mass release of violent inmates and you'll also see a lot of money having to be spent by the state of Alabama that we just don't have to spend," continued Ward.

That's what the task force is working to avoid.

Two thirds of the state's inmates committed property or drug crimes. Many who leave prison commit their crimes again.

Lawmakers and many in the criminal justice community received recommendations to fix the problem.

"I think what you're going to see is some sentencing reform guidelines that change a little bit with nonviolent offenders," said Ward. "I think you'll see some changes on how we score and handle parole for nonviolent offenders as well as an increase in resources allocated for community corrections, drug courts and mental health courts."

That could include hiring more probation and parole officers to increase supervision. Studies show supervision lowers the rate of reoffending.

"The biggest challenge is finding something that you can get passed through the legislature and overcoming the stigma of soft on crime because this is definitely not soft on crime," explained Ward. "We're looking at nonviolent offenders, how we reform them and make sure they do not come back into the system and at the same time, protecting the public from the violent offenders."

Alabama can build enough prison beds to get to one hundred percent capacity, but that would cost $840 million dollars for construction. Instead of doing that, their goal is to reduce the prison population, which in turn should save money.

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