Texas’ Seven Lessons for Alabama on Prison Reform

At AL.com, journalist Wesley Vaughn spoke to Right on Crime Senior Fellow and former Texas House Chairman of Corrections Jerry Madden about Alabama’s urgently-needed prison reforms.

“What would Texas do?” That question is what Alabama’s public officials are asking as they prepare to tackle prison reform for the 2015 legislative session.

The Texas Model has been praised nationally by Democrats and Republicans for stabilizing the state’s prison population in the face of troublesome projections.

Read the interview…

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“Alabama’s criminal justice system offers opportunities for conservatives”

Katherine Robertson, Jay Neal and Jerry Madden: “By adopting policies based on conservative principles—personal responsibility, fiscal discipline, and individual liberty—states including Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas have enacted policies proven to both enhance public safety and minimize the cost to taxpayers.”

Click here to read the full op-ed.

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The Conservative Case Against More Prisons

Our policy experts Vikrant Reddy and Marc Levin wrote an excellent piece recently for The American Conservative magazine. It’s entitled, “The Conservative Case Against More Prisons” and appeared in the latest issue of the magazine.

Here is an excerpt:

There are other ways to hold offenders—particularly nonviolent ones—accountable. These alternatives when properly implemented can lead to greater public safety and increase the likelihood that victims of crime will receive restitution. The alternatives are also less costly. Prisons are expensive (in some states, the cost of incarcerating an inmate for one year approaches $60,000), and just as policymakers should scrutinize government expenditures on social programs and demand accountability, they should do the same when it comes to prison spending. None of this means making excuses for criminal behavior; it simply means “thinking outside the cell” when it comes to punishment and accountability.

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Engulfed by Environmental Crimes

The Texas Public Policy Foundation recently released a report on overcriminalization which I co-authored with my Right On Crime colleague, Marc Levin. The report, titled Engulfed by Environmental Crimes: Overcriminalizaton on the Gulf Coast, has received some attention across the internet after being the subject of features on FoxNews.com and The Washington Examiner.

In the report, we argue:

“’Ground zero’ for state-level overcriminalization may well be the United States Gulf Coast.  Five U.S. states border the Gulf of Mexico—Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida—and between them, they have passed nearly 1,000 laws criminalizing activity along the coast. Criminal sanctions are of course appropriately applied to an individual who intentionally contaminates another person’s property. Too often, however, the activity that is governed by these myriad laws is non-blameworthy, ordinary business activity.”

We offer five recommendations to address the problem. First and foremost, we advise that states review their environmental regulations to determine whether criminal sanctions—in particular, prison—are appropriate. As former Texas state representative Jerry Madden says, ‘prisons are people we’re scared of, not people we’re mad at.’

Second, we advise states to strengthen the mens rea elements in their environmental criminal statutes. In environmental criminal prosecutions, offenders frequently lack the state of mind that would be necessary to convict for a traditional crime.

Third, we urge states to codify the rule of lenity and ensure that it is applied in environmental criminal cases. The rule of lenity is the canon of construction advising that vague criminal statutes be construed against the government and in favor of the defendant. It places a burden upon legislators to draft statutes as precisely as possible.

Fourth, we advise eliminating provisions that delegate to agencies the power to create new criminal offenses through rulemaking.

Finally, we encourage the adoption of safe harbor provisions. These provisions protect offenders from penalties if no harm has been done and the offender promptly acts to come into compliance.

The report is not limited to an abstract public policy discussion. In an appendix, the report documents several notorious incidents of overcriminalization throughout the Gulf states.

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Prison Population Pressures Plague Two States

Rising prison populations in two states are stimulating legislative attention to criminal justice reform—and neither state, fortunately, is resorting to merely letting inmates out early. Instead, both states are turning to proven, evidence-based reforms that decrease unnecessary incarceration for non-violent, low risk offenders, and reforms keyed to decreasing recidivism rates.

In Alabama, Republican State Senator Cam Ward pushed sentencing reform through the Alabama Senate which would focus on non-violent offenders charged with drug and alcohol offenses, shifting the focus for those offenders from long prison terms towards community based programming that would include substance abuse programming. Senator Ward pointed to the 50 percent decrease in costs for this type of treatment as evidence that prison bed space as well as taxpayer dollars would be more efficiently prioritized in Alabama with this legislation.

In South Dakota, however, experts are seeking to pass legislation next year that would deal with higher rates of recidivism as well as low-level, non-violent offenders. After hitting record high prison populations, the state started looking at why—and realized fewer inmates were working to become eligible for parole, and recent spikes in parole violations.

The state hopes to have legislation ready in 2013 that would deal with substance abuse issues—such as drug courts and DWI courts—to stem the flow of inmates into the system, tailored treatment for female offenders, and targeted intensive reentry services for younger ex-inmates to put more of them on the track to productive, law-abiding lives.

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