Alabama has put its hopes for criminal justice reform in the hands of a study group that is gathering data it will use to make recommendations ahead of the 2020 legislative session.

Gov. Kay Ivey convened the criminal justice study commission in July. The governor, the state attorney general, the state prison commissioner, former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons, several legislators and others will serve on the group.

The formation of the group is a step by the state to avoid a Department of Justice lawsuit over worsening prison conditions. Earlier this year, the Justice Department condemned the state’s prison system, saying it was plagued by “rampant violence,” “unchecked extortion” and “severe and widespread sexual abuse.”

In 2017, a federal judge ruled the state has provided “horrendously inadequate” care to mentally ill inmates and ordered changes.

A study conducted last year by the Equal Justice Initiative showed Alabama’s prisons have become the most lethal in the nation. The EJI study found 35 prisoners have been murdered in state prison facilities in the past five years.

Compounding the problems is a serious overcrowding issue. Today, the state’s prisons are home to nearly twice as many people as they were designed to hold.

And in the past two years, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has paroled more than 3,500 violent offenders in an effort to reduce the overcrowding

Considering these statistics, the study group’s task is formidable. Ivey seems to understand this.

“We have a problem in Alabama and we have waited too long to address it,” she wrote at the time she announced the study group’s formation. “The path forward to resolve these problems is clear and obvious. However, this path is neither quick nor simple.”

The commission’s ultimate recommendations will be data driven, said the governor. Its members will pore over statistics on recidivism and sentencing, violence, inmate deaths and staffing shortages, as well as prison populations and construction of new prisons.

The overall goal of the commission is to avoid litigation with the federal government.

“A tough decision will have to be made in the very near future,” wrote Ivey. And if the governor has any hopes of making “Trouble in Alabama prisons” a headline of the past, state lawmakers must come to grips with that reality before next year’s legislative session gets underway.
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