Crime and Punishment in Alabama: How to Reduce a Prisoner’s Financial Costs on a County Jail.

By Cam Ward

The 2017 session of the Alabama Legislature is in full swing, and as of this writing, 692 bills (and counting!) have been filed. As the State Senator for District 14, one of my responsibilities is to represent your interests in Montgomery. I also believe that I have a responsibility to update you from time-to-time on the latest legislative occurrences in Montgomery. I usually hear people talk more often about national than state politics, and the election of Donald Trump to the presidency has inspired a great deal of conversation and excitement about the direction of our county. I am convinced, however, that what happens in Montgomery has a greater direct impact on the lives of Alabamians than what transpires in Washington.

Part of how I keep constituents up to-date is through social media (see the note at the end of this column for my social media “handles,” as my daughter says) and from occasional columns like these. Today, I won’t attempt the Herculean effort of breaking down each of the nearly 700 pieces of legislation that has been filed. But I do want to tell you about Senate Bill 54, a proposal I am sponsoring to relieve some of the financial strain on county sheriffs’ offices.

Under current law, if a person who is on Medicaid is arrested for a crime, their Medicaid benefits are immediately suspended. At first blush, this may appear to be a just part of the crime’s punishment. Someone broke the law? Of course their Medicaid benefits should be suspended, right? Well, as college football analyst Lee Corso would say, Not so fast, my friend. Federal law requires local jails and prisons to provide for an inmate’s mental and health care costs, and most of the inmates aren’t on gold-plated, employer-provided health insurance plans.

Many county and state inmates have some type of mental illness. Does this excuse their actions or provide a justification for their abhorrent behavior? Absolutely not. But the cold fact is county sheriffs and the state Department of Corrections are constitutionally required to provide a minimal level of mental and health care. Which leaves the sheriffs in a pinch under current law, since the suspension of Medicaid benefits means the county sheriff’s office is left to pay for 100% of a prisoner’s healthcare costs.

What Senate Bill 54 does is allow inmates to stay on Medicaid: the counties would be responsible for covering 30% of a prisoner’s costs, and the federal government (Medicaid is a federal program) would cover the remaining costs. So, local governments will have a huge financial burden lifted off their backs.

Further, the revolving door of prisoners leaving jail only to commit a crime within a matter of weeks should be slowed under SB54. Currently, once a person exits prison to re-enter society, they are left in no man’s land, without Medicaid or any other type of health insurance. These former inmates who have mental illnesses often pursue destructive and criminal behavior, absent the help of psychological counseling and medication.

I am no bleeding heart liberal, as my rock-ribbed conservative voting record will attest. Yet, I am also pragmatic. The current policy of Medicaid suspension drives up costs for local governments, increases instances of recidivism, and, by association, increases the risk of crime for the public. After listening to my local sheriffs from Shelby, Dale, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson counties, I am convinced this is the right course to pursue.

If you have any questions about SB54 or any other piece of legislation pending in Montgomery, I would love to hear from you. Give my office a call at 334-242-7873 or shoot me an email via [email protected] – and thanks for the privilege of representing you in the Alabama Senate.

Republican Senator Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard