By Phillip Rawls
The Associated Press
Gov. Bob Riley wants the Alabama Legislature to devote the first two weeks of its election-year session to his recommendations for easing Alabama's prison crowding problems. But a Senate leader said other critical topics will be in play as well.
The Alabama Legislature convenes for its 2006 regular session Jan. 10 and can meet for 15 weeks.
"We're going to have a package of corrections reforms," Riley said Tuesday at the governor's mansion.
Riley had considered calling a special session this winter to focus on prison issues, but legislators urged him to wait until the regular session. That's when Riley came up with the idea to devote the first two weeks to prison issues.
House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said Tuesday he had discussed the idea with Riley "and it certainly deserves to be a priority."
Senate President Pro Tem Lowell Barron, D-Fyffe, said Riley has mentioned the idea but they have not discussed it in detail.
"If he wants to make that his focus for the first two weeks, that's good, but that doesn't mean the Legislature will solely address prison issues. There will be other critical issues we'll need to be addressing," Barron said.
Barron said Riley needs to present his proposals soon and begin discussing them with legislators before the session starts if he wants to be successful.
Riley's task force has called for alternatives to incarceration in traditional prisons, including more community corrections and transition centers for prisoners. It also recommended better prison drug treatment programs and approval of sentencing standards for judges that were recommended by the Alabama Sentencing Commission.
Riley and his staff have not yet turned those recommendations into pieces of legislation.
The state Department of Corrections is responsible for 27,623 inmates, with 23,500 of those in traditional prisons or work release centers. The others are in community corrections programs, county jails, federal prisons, or out-of-state lockups, spokesman Brian Corbett said.
The department has become one of Alabama's largest budget expenses, with $305 million appropriated in this year's General Fund budget.
Riley said the recommendations made by his task force, if implemented correctly, should not cause increased costs because it would be cheaper to house someone in a drug treatment program or transition center than in a traditional prison.