RISE IN ALABAMA PRISON POPULATION HASN'T SLOWED
MOBILE, Ala. (AP) -- A surge in Alabama's prison population -- from just 5,547 inmates in 1977 to 28,316 at the start of this year -- has fueled the budget crisis at the Department of Corrections, now under a court order to
reduce overcrowding but lacking money to build new lockups.
In his State of the State speech Tuesday night, Gov. Bob Riley listed "a tremendously underfunded" corrections
budget among the state's financial woes. The expanding number of inmates is part of the financial pinch.
Corrections figures show that Alabama's prison population has swelled nearly 373 percent from 1977 to 2000, compared to 336 percent growth in a 16-state region of the South, including Washington, D.C. and Delaware.
The U.S. total for state prison population growth during that span was about 364 percent, nearly the same as
the state's total.
"This not an Alabama problem. It's happening in every state," said criminal justice professor Robert T. Sigler of
the University of Alabama, who advocates more community corrections to reduce state prison overcrowding.
The cause of the surge?
"We're at the peak of a retribution cycle -- get tough on crime," Sigler said.
Following a liberal trend in criminal justice during the 1960s, Sigler said this "conservative cycle" could last 50
years. As a result, prisons are filling up with "relatively mild offenders" -- petty criminals -- "shoplifters, a person
who steals from your car," he said.
Viewed over a 10-year span, Alabama's inmate population growth, at 67.4 percent, was below the national rate
of about 75 percent and modest compared to others in the region. Texas led the South with a nearly 216 percent
growth in its inmate population from 1990 to 2000, when the number reached 157,997; followed by Mississippi --
up about 142 percent to 20,241; and Tennessee, up 113.4 percent to 22,166 in 2000.
The figures were compiled by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Statistics.
"An endless number of things affect the increase in population, not to mention the increase in crime," said Brian C. Corbett, a spokesman for the Alabama Department of Corrections.
The population growth continues despite the introduction of local drug courts and other methods of alternatives
to being sent to state prison.
The state's habitual offender law, although it has been modified, still means longer stays behind bars for certain
criminals. But about 3,372 inmates currently are in work-release jobs that take them out of prisons.
Since 1980, the state has only opened enough new facilities to hold 7,358 inmates, "but we've taken in more than 21,000," Corbett said. The 28,316 inmates on state prison rolls at the beginning of this year includes 1,500 awaiting transfers from county jails, he said.
A state court judge in Montgomery has set requirements for removing state prisoners backlogged in county jails
and a federal judge has ordered an end to overcrowded conditions at the women's prison.
New prison commissioner Donal Campbell has told legislators that this year's $204 million appropriation is
insufficient. Campbell said he needs an additional $29 million this year and $126 million more next year. But with revenue tight across state government, it's not clear how that new money would be found.
Campbell said Wednesday he's "taking a look at how we can create some savings within our exisiting budget." At
the same time, he said he hopes the governor and the state finance director will "support my efforts to obtain
the funding that we feel would be needed."
As for prison overcrowding, Campbell said, "Several hundred inmates in this system may be eligible for community corrections programs today." He said community corrections will not eliminate overcrowding, calling it "one piece of the problem."
But, he added: "I'm not in the business of letting inmates out. That should come before they are sent to prison, with alternative sentencing. We're charged with incarceration."