Op-ed: Building a Better Criminal Justice System Together

Op-ed: Building a Better Criminal Justice System Together

By Jeff Dunn, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections and Cam Ward, Director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles

As Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and Director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP), our top priority is to ensure public safety in Alabama.

No matter your opinion of our criminal justice system, the reality is if you commit a crime and are convicted by a court in Alabama, you owe society a debt of time. Time as a consequence. Time as restitution. Time as a safety measure.   

Only a small fraction of convicted criminals will remain in prison for life. The rest – 95% of people currently serving a prison sentence – will pay their debt and one day be released as free citizens. Inmates who are released from prison and return to their communities need jobs. They need to pay taxes and abide by the law. Our agencies help prepare them to do that by offering rehabilitation and reentry services, and supporting returning citizens through supervised parole, probation, and access to needed resources.   

While the ADOC and ABPP share a unified mission to rehabilitate inmates and enable a smooth transition back into society, historically there has been a lack of collaboration between our agencies, limited clarity around the parole consideration process, and perceived inconsistent standards of review.  

The result? Some inmates may wrongly have lost hope that they will ever be able to earn their freedom back through our parole process. Imagine the negative effect that has not only on that individual, but also on fellow inmates. Why put in the work to improve if that effort seems to amount to nothing?

Hopelessness is a driver of violence and despair in any prison. Hope, on the other hand, is fundamental to positive change during incarceration and eventual success upon release. The potential for release provides that hope and therefore stability, meaning, and a strong motivation for the future.  

Under Governor Ivey’s leadership, we are committed to driving a transformation that fosters hope by increasing collaboration between our agencies. In the past, our work has been conducted in siloes, and it is time for a change. We need to establish a clear pathway to reentering free society by expanding our rehabilitative programs; creating a transparent, consistent process for parole consideration and ensuring that inmates understand how it works; and enhancing our reentry services so that released inmates can transition back into society safely and successfully with support and supervision.  

Reducing recidivism, which is when a convicted criminal reoffends, should be important to every Alabamian. This is a bipartisan issue, and neither of us, nor Governor Ivey, believe that doing “hard time” is enough to transform someone from a public safety risk into a law-abiding citizen. We must look at the bigger picture.

In our minds, a recipe to reduce recidivism and create safer communities has multiple ingredients. First, we should diligently explore ways to expand pre-trial and diversionary programs as an alternative to immediate incarceration – including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. For those sent to prison, we must build environments that better accommodate necessary treatment, education, vocational training, and life-skill development resources.

This recipe also calls for creating a clear process for parole consideration to include developing a tool that consistently accounts, and gives appropriate credit, not only for an inmate’s good behavior while incarcerated, but also for all the work an inmate has done to rehabilitate.

Additionally, we need to enhance our reentry and transition programs and eliminate barriers to getting a job by helping returning citizens get an ID card or driver’s license, social security card, or birth certificate. Equally important to strict supervision upon release is strengthening our ability to provide structured support of parolees’ job search, continued rehabilitation, or treatment of their underlying conditions through our day reporting center programs.

This is a tall order, but we are working hard – and together – and we will get it done! Our focus is on increasing collaboration between our agencies through regular meetings, expanding our use of evidence-based programs, digitizing paper processes, and integrating IT systems using 21st century technology so that we can better share information across the State’s law enforcement agencies.

We also hope to establish leadership positions at both the ADOC and ABPP that are focused on rehabilitation and advancing our unified mission. Our agencies will adhere to a coordinated, strategic plan and these leaders will regularly report on our progress.

Governor Ivey has a comprehensive vision for modernizing Alabama’s outdated criminal justice system and refocusing it on rehabilitation. Replacing our aging, dilapidated prisons with new facilities is only one critical component. Her vision also requires legislative reforms, technology improvements, expanding existing programs, and increasing agency collaboration to maximize the use of taxpayer dollars.

These smart investments into our future will help those who are incarcerated return to society as productive, law-abiding citizens. That makes every Alabamian, and our communities, safer.