Sentencing Commission cites 19 inmates as eligible, a far cry from the thousands that an independent consultant had said
could be freed at low risk
Tuesday, May 24, 2005
By BRENDAN KIRBY
Months after an independent consultant suggested Alabama's prisons have thousands of low-risk inmates who are eligible
for parole, the state's Sentencing Commission has released a study concluding the actual number is close to zero.
James Austin, of the Washington-based JFA Institute, presented his findings to Gov. Bob Riley's Cabinet in January.
Looking at data from the Department of Corrections in October, he found 11,785 prisoners had passed their initial parole
Austin used a risk-assessment system taking into account several factors that increase the likelihood of an inmate
committing a new crime, including education level, offense, age and other factors. Using that model, Austin determined that
2,843 had a low risk of returning to prison. He classified another 3,738 as "moderate risk."
Representatives of the Alabama Sentencing Commission and the Board of Pardons and Paroles challenged those figures.
The Sentencing Commission attempted to replicate Austin's figures and concluded that all but a handful of the inmates
Austin studied either already have been released, were denied parole or were ineligible for one reason or another.
"The point is, they've already been reviewed by the board," said Lynda Flynt, the executive director of the Sentencing
Commission. "The pool is dwindling."
The number of parole-worthy prisoners in Alabama is more than an academic issue for a corrections system that is one of
the most overcrowded in the country. To deal with that overcrowding, Gov. Bob Riley two years ago set up a special docket
of nonviolent inmates to be considered for special parole.
The parole board released more than 4,100 of those prisoners before exhausting the special docket. The governor ordered
that inmates whose paroles were rejected would not get hearings until their next regularly scheduled consideration date.
As a result, Alabama's prison population has begun to climb after dipping for several months. Brian Corbett, a spokesman for
the Department of Corrections, said the total prison population -- including prisoners awaiting transfer from county jails and
those being held in private prisons out of state -- stood at 27,384 on Friday. In March 2004, it was 26,465.
After eliminating prisoners serving time for violent offenses or who have convictions for violent crimes on their records, the
Sentencing Commission found in its examination of the prison system's October data that a maximum of 2,967 inmates could
be eligible for parole. Commission staff further broke down that number as follows:
839 have been released.
909 were considered for parole but denied.
294 were being considered.
155 are sentenced to community corrections programs and are ineligible for parole.
613 are serving split sentences, in which they served a specific prison term followed by probation, and also are not eligible.
16 waived parole because they were close to ending their sentences, which would allow them to go free without the
restrictions parole imposes.
122 had parole or probation revoked or reinstated, escaped, were ordered to complete a drug treatment program before
they could be considered for early release or otherwise were ineligible.
That leaves 19 prisoners from the October data who were eligible for parole.
Cynthia Dillard, assistant executive director of the parole board, said the board failed to schedule hearings for those 19 due
to misfilings or other clerical errors. She said the board has begun screening those inmates.
Dillard said Austin's estimation that the state has 11,785 inmates whose initial parole eligibility dates have passed is
misleading. She said it suggests the parole board has refused to hold hearings for inmates who qualify for early release. In
fact, she added, that includes many prisoners whose parole bids were considered but rejected.
"That figure was the most bogus one that we heard," she said.
Austin said he asked the Department of Corrections for the number of prisoners whose parole-eligibility dates had passed.
He said that should have excluded inmates who were not eligible for parole.
Corbett said he was unfamiliar with Austin's study or what information the department provided him.
"I would have to side with the parole board and the Sentencing Commission," he said, noting they have more day-to-day
experience with Alabama.
Austin said the Sentencing Commission's figures prove his point. The fact that the parole board ultimately granted early
release to 839 inmates shows the board agreed they were low-risk prisoners. He said some of 909 prisoners whose paroles
were rejected also might be low risks. The same goes for some of the inmates who have been given parole hearing dates or
who are being screened for such consideration, he said.
Alabama could cut its prison population simply by giving more timely hearings to inmates, Austin said. He said Maryland
recently began giving parole hearings to inmates before they were eligible so that those deemed worthy can leave the day
they become eligible.
"Each month, (Alabama prisons have) got this population of low-risk inmates who should have been released," he said. "I
think the numbers still stand up pretty good, even by their figures."
Austin said it also is foolish not to parole some violent inmates, who actually have a smaller chance of returning to prison
than other prisoners.
Dillard said the board has a backlog of about a year -- affecting anywhere from 2,600 to 3,600 inmates -- because of a law
that requires the parole board to notify victims of violent crime of hearings. It is difficult and time-consuming to track victims
down, she said.
"There's some murderers who would be a good risk, but that still doesn't change the fact that we have to notify the victims,"
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