- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Legislators took a step forward Thursday in their efforts to overhaul the state’s crowded prison system, approving sweeping changes to sentencing and probation standards.

State senators voted 31-2 for the legislation, which now goes to the House of Representatives. The bill aims to steer low-level drug and property offenders away from prison and reduce recidivism by putting more resources into probation and parole.

“This is not the ultimate fix but this is a huge step in the right direction,” said Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster. “This will lead the nation as far as how we are reforming corrections in Alabama.”

Alabama prisons house nearly twice the number of inmates they were originally designed to hold, a crowding level that some state officials say is both dangerous and puts the state at risk of federal intervention.

“Doing nothing is not a solution to this problem. Trust me when I say there are some federal judges that would be glad to do it for us,” Ward said.

One of the biggest changes in the bill is the creation of a lower class of felonies that would be exempt from the Habitual Offender Act.

Theft of property valued at between $500 and $1,500 would be a so-called Class D felony. The bill also reclassifies marijuana possession, which Ward said Alabama law currently treated more harshly than crack-cocaine offenses.

Possession of up to a pound of marijuana would be a misdemeanor and up to 2.5 pounds would be a Class D felony unless there was evidence the person was selling the drug. Ward said he expects the marijuana classifications to be one of the more contentious issues in the House of Representatives.

The legislation was the result of a year of work by a prison reform task force and crafted in conjunction with the Council of State Governments. A prison reform task force is also recommending the construction of up to 2,000 new prison beds.

Following a lengthy debate on the bill, senators approved the measure by a lopsided margin.

“I think we all understand the sense of urgency to this,” said Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston.

Lawmakers don’t have to just approve the measures, they have to fund them. The bill comes at an estimated annual price of $23 million, with much of the cost increase coming from hiring the additional probation officers, Ward said.

The bill would:

- Provide for hiring more than 100 new probation officers. Currently probate and parole officer have caseloads of 200 people each. The hiring would take caseloads down to under 100 each.

- Mandate that people who commit technical parole violations, such as failing to show up for a drug test, would get a three-day stint in jail. Ward said the promise of a swift punishment for failing to comply with probation requirements has proved to reduce recidivism in other states.

- Require supervision of everyone who is released from prison.

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