- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - Lawmakers plan to whittle down Gov. Robert Bentley’s proposed $800 million prison construction project when it heads to a committee vote next week.

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Cam Ward said the committee will vote on a smaller prison construction proposal next week. However, Ward said he didn’t yet know the dollar size of the plan, but said it will be less than Bentley’s original $800 million proposal to build four new prisons.

“I think everybody realizes you’ve got to do something. You have to get everybody where they are comfortable,” Ward said. “Lawmakers realize that is a lot of money to invest in prisons. They want to spend it the right way.”

The governor unsuccessfully proposed the prison construction plan last year. He has faced questions again this year about the affordability of the project and the closures of existing facilities.

“I believe what Sen. Ward will be able to present in committee as a substitute is a lot closer to where the comfort level is. It will be smaller, but I can’t tell you to what extent,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said.

Bentley said Friday that he appreciated the work by Ward and Marsh on the project

“They are working on this. We will be appreciative of whatever they are able to get out of the Senate,” the governor said.

Ward said he did not know if he would keep Bentley’s proposal of design-build construction in which a single designer-builder is selected for the project.

Alabama prisons house 23,074 inmates in facilities build for 13,318, a figure that puts the department at 173 percent capacity.

Bentley had proposed borrowing $800 million to consolidate 14 of the state’s 16 maximum and medium security facilities into four new large regional prions. Three mega-prisons for men would hold 4,000 inmates each and one prison for women would hold 1,200 inmates. Two existing facilities would stay open.

The Department of Corrections has told lawmakers that the increased bed capacity to a total of 16,000 beds, plus previously approved sentencing reforms, would bring the system to 125 percent capacity, a number that has been found acceptable by the courts in prison crowding litigation in other states.

The department has also projected that the cost of the $800 million bond issue - about $50 million each year - could be paid for with the savings in the department gleaned from consolidations and ending the maintenance projects on aging buildings.

“Why should we trust you to deliver an $800 million project,” Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, asked the prison commissioner in a public hearing this week.

“I’m asking for a big project. It’s a big problem,” Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn replied.

If the proposal clears the Senate, it will head to the House of Representatives where lawmakers have had informal discussions about a smaller plan.

“One of the ideas that we had was trying to do what we call a pilot program, which is similar to what I’m hearing from the Senate. But we haven’t locked in on anything specific,” House Speaker Mac McCutcheon said.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to vote Tuesday.

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