An exclusive Q&A with Alabama State Sen. Cam Ward on criminal justice reform, second chances, and how his faith informs his work.
"When somebody does somethin' wrong, everybody wants to know, 'How you going to punish the guy?'" said University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban during a recent press conference. "But there's not enough for 19- and 20-year-old kids, people out there sayin', 'Why don’t you give 'em another chance?'"
Saban isn't the only Alabaman who believes in second chances. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) found that the Alabama prison system has violated the 8th Amendment, subjecting prisoners to cruel and unusual punishment. The state of Alabama is working toward building a better criminal justice system, with Kay Ivey, the state's governor, sharing in July, "The Ivey Administration inherited decades-old, systemic problems in the state's prison system, including overcrowding and understaffing. The governor has consistently reminded the people of Alabama that reforming the prison system is a matter of public safety."
Gov. Ivey signed a proclamation earlier this year recognizing April as Second Chance® Month in the state. That's thanks, in part, to Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, a Republican and Judiciary Chairman in the Alabama State Senate, who has led the charge for justice reform in the state. Ward is also a founding member of the Faith & Justice Fellowship, a bipartisan body of politicians first mobilized by Prison Fellowship who are motivated by their various faith traditions and committed to prioritizing and advancing restorative values in criminal justice reform.
Prison Fellowship® spoke with the senator about the importance of second chances and how he and other Alabama lawmakers are reforming their criminal justice system. The conversation below has been edited for clarity and length.
Prison Fellowship: Sen. Ward, why are you passionate about second chances?
Sen. Cam Ward: Well, everyone makes mistakes in society, some bigger than others. But [my Christian] faith teaches us to love everybody. All men and women are sinners. We are faulty. I am faulty. Yeah, people make mistakes. There are serious problems out there. There are some bad people too. But at the same time, I believe there is opportunity for redemption.
What are some of the recent developments in justice reform you've seen in Alabama?
We now have one of the lowest [numbers of technical violations] in the country with only 2% of individuals in prison serving time for supervision violations. Another success story is we've seen recidivism drop by 5% over the last decade in our state due to the work we've been doing. And then finally, I think the overall overpopulation from our prisons dropped from nearly 200% capacity down to around 160%, so I consider those to be successes. Now, it's not the end, but it is a success story that we can build on.
[However,] we have two storms. [The first is that] Judge Myron Thompson has ruled that our health care and mental health care inside our correctional facilities are unconstitutional. The second problem is DOJ did an investigation and found some really bad situations in the conditions inside our prisons. Both those storms had the potential of merging together and really giving us problems.
Alabama is under the threat of Department of Justice (DOJ) oversight if the state doesn't fix those problems, is that right? What are you and the state legislature doing to fix these issues going forward?
The governor established her executive commission on criminal justice policy. I am one of the six legislators on there—bipartisan legislators—working now to come up with legislation to improve the conditions inside, provide more health care and mental health opportunities, more rehabilitation programs, more reentry programs, and finally, legislation to look at our sentencing guidelines and what can be done to reform them to make it a more just system.
[This is about] our fellow man… They committed a crime, they're in prison there, [but] we have to treat them with some sort of humanity. I know people say, "They did the crime, do the time." That sounds good, but that's not what the Bible teaches us.
Also, [treating prisoners unjustly] doesn't make society safer. I mean, 95% of everyone inside a correctional facility in United States today eventually gets out. What do we want them to look like when they get out? Hopefully, successful law-abiding citizen, tax-paying citizen who are successful on the outside and no longer a ward of the state.
So, a more constructive prison culture is needed?
It goes back to the simple word of "corrections." The purpose of a correctional facility is to correct. Right now, it's a reactive system. Having a different culture on the inside helps [a] person gain redemption—helps them be prepared—so that when they do leave, they're not the same person they were when they came in.
If we disregard the culture on the inside of what it needs to be, all we're doing is putting people into a perpetual cycle they'll never get out of.
How are Alabaman Republicans and Democrats working together on key justice reform issues?
I think it's probably one of the last bipartisan issues left. There is some consensus.
Now, we have some hurdles to overcome. Both sides have [their own] ideal scenario, what they'd like to see, and both sides are going to have to give in order to get a better system. [But] There's consensus on the need for more vocational programs, for better rehabilitation programs. That part we all agree on.
What do you hope to see accomplished in justice reform in your state over the next 12 months?
I'd like to see us reform our sentencing structure on top of reforms we've already made to it; reform it in such a way that the punishment fits the crime committed. I would really like to see us invest when someone reenters society again. That means education, job training, and appropriate rehabilitation programs because you have a large part of the population that have drug addictions or mental health illnesses. That's what I want to see addressed.
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