One issue local legislators addressed during the annual Eggs and Issues breakfast Tuesday became the major topic of discussion as the Dothan Area Chamber of Commerce’s annual legislative meeting closed.
During the question-and-answer period, an audience member asked how Gov. Kay Ivey’s proposed plan to build three large prisons would improve the state’s corrections system. In recent years, the state has faced federal scrutiny for the lack of prison guards and mental health professionals it employs.
Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, said the idea did not immediately impress him when first floated a few years ago. As officials have gathered more research, though, the idea makes sense, he added.
“It will help with overcrowding. With new technology, you can watch more people with fewer guards,” he said. “If you build in more urban areas, you have a greater labor pool to draw those mental health professionals from.”
Clouse said the state paid $40 million in overtime to Alabama Department of Corrections workers last year – money that could be used to pay for new facilities. He added Ivey’s plan, which has not been fully unveiled, would include the shutdown of many existing Alabama prisons – providing even more potential funding for the initiative.
Clouse said officials tried to address the labor shortage last year when they authorized an extra $80 million to be spent on prison staffing. Still, the state had problems filling positions.
“People are not beating down the doors to be prison guards,” he said. “If you can pass a physical and a drug test, you can have a job with the Department of Corrections.”
Clouse said new facilities could make potential employees feel safer and more likely to apply for ADOC jobs.
Rep. Dexter Grimsley (D-Newville), a former juvenile probation officer, said the state could possibly look at sentencing reform in an effort to reduce the number of prisoners in the system. He discussed marijuana and the “three strikes” law that sends people to prison for potentially life after three felony convictions.
In Alabama, the second time a person is caught in possession of marijuana, they are charged with a felony – something that Grimsley feels should not be the case.
“Marijuana shouldn’t result in a felony unless it’s over a certain amount, like for trafficking,” he said.
Grimsley also discussed the possibility of including just Class A felonies in the “three strikes” count.
Clouse said many people suggest releasing nonviolent offenders as an answer to the overcrowding situation, but points out that 86 percent of state inmates are there for violent offenses, a figure that limits the impact of that idea.
Other area legislators who spoke at the breakfast were Rep. Jeff Sorrells (R-Hartford), Rep. Paul Lee (R- Dothan), and Sen. Donnie Chesteen (R-Geneva).