- Associated Press - Thursday, January 29, 2015

COLUMBIANA, Ala. (AP) - A prison reform group on Thursday suggested creating a new felony class for the least serious property and drug crimes as one of the solutions for Alabama’s chronically overcrowded prisons.

Drug possession, fraudulent use of a credit card, nonviolent burglary of an unoccupied building and theft of property valued between $500 and $1,499 would fall into the new proposed Class D felony category.

“It’s still a felony, but it won’t necessarily grab you under the Habitual Offender Act,” Alabama Prison Reform Task Force Chairman Cam Ward said of the proposal.

The Task Force heard a slate of recommendations Thursday from the Council of State Governments which was tapped to make proposals. The other recommendations included adding 101 additional parole and probation officers, increasing funding for treatment programs, increasing use of diversion programs for nonviolent offenders and requiring certain inmates to successfully complete supervision on parole before being released from their sentence.

The Task Force will vote on the ideas on Feb. 26. Ward said the recommendations will then be compiled into a single “super bill” when the Alabama Legislature convenes in March.

“The reason I want to do that is if you break it down into five or six bills, people will vote on the easy stuff and then vote against the hard stuff,” Ward said.

Ward said the “hard stuff” will likely include winning approval for the Class D felony proposal. Lawmakers rejected the proposal several years ago.

Randy Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said the lower felony class was acceptable, “so long as it is applied to the correct offenses and the correct offenders.”

Alabama prisons hold roughly twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold, a crowding level state officials fear could put them on the losing end of a federal lawsuit.

Andy Barbee, research manager for the Council of State Governments, said the proposed changes should lower crowding to 162 percent of designed capacity by 2021. The changes would cost the state roughly $151 million over six years.

He said the recommendations are a combination of prioritizing prison space for the most violent offenders, increasing supervision and treatment to reduce recidivism and holding inmates accountable in prison and after release

Barbee said the proposals aren’t directed at “the Charles Mansons and Jeffery Dahmers” but on garden variety, low-level criminals who put crowding pressure on the system.

Alternatively, Barbee said Alabama would have to add 6,000 prison beds to bring crowding down to 130 percent, roughly the level that courts have found acceptable in other overcrowding lawsuits. That construction would cost the state an estimated $420 million.

Ward said it will take a combination of construction and reforms to get prison crowding down at of a danger zone.

“At the end of the day, you are going to need more beds than we have now,” Ward said.

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