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Prison task force opens inquiry; seeks solutions to overcrowding

Wednesday, May 11, 2005By BRENDAN KIRBY
Staff Reporter

MONTGOMERY -- A group of political leaders, businessmen, lawyers and advocates opened a yearlong inquiry Tuesday into Alabama's chronically overcrowded prison system, with hopes of recommending solutions to Gov. Bob Riley.

It's uncertain how the effort will differ from a myriad of past studies and recommendations that have exhaustively detailed the state's corrections shortfalls.

It also remains unclear whether state lawmakers can find the funding many experts agree is necessary to dramatically improve the situation.

"Everything -- it makes a full circle -- comes back to money," said Randall Hillman, executive director of the Alabama District Attorneys Association and a task force member. "It's going to take more money than we are willing to spend to make the system work."

Tuesday was the first meeting. Chairman Mike Stephens, a businessman, said he plans to meet a half-dozen times before making recommendations.

Vernon Barnett, a legal adviser to the governor, detailed issues confronting a system that's running about 222 percent over designed capacity.

Options under consideration include:

Letting more inmates out early. Lynda Flynt, a task force member who serves as executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, estimated that the prisons hold another 1,979 low-risk, nonviolent offenders beyond the 4,174 nonviolent prisoners already released from a special docket that was set up in April 2003.

Expanding and building more prisons. A consulting firm in March 2003 developed a master plan to raise the capacity of the prisons to match the number of inmates currently incarcerated. But officials said the state could not come close to affording the $934 million price tag.

Creating more transition centers, similar to the LIFE Tech Transition Center in Wetumpka that eases female inmates back into society through a regimen of drug treatment, education and job training programs. Officials said opening a transition center in fiscal year 2006 and two more by fiscal year 2008 could divert 630 inmates and save $3 million.

William Segrest, executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said the pending general fund budget includes $2.75 million in operating expenses for a transition center for male inmates. But, he said, it doesn't include the $2 million needed for repairs to an abandoned mental health facility in Thomasville, a possible center location.

Starting more community corrections programs, where county- run agencies supervise convicts. That's cheaper than prison, but the state only has 24 programs serving 30 of Alabama's 67 counties. Officials estimate cost savings of $7,000 a year per inmate using community corrections.

Reforming sentences. Officials estimate voluntary sentencing guidelines could reduce the prison population by about 2,000 inmates by fiscal year 2007. Legislation to create guidelines that would result in shorter average sentences for some drug and nonviolent crimes has passed the state House and the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Task force member, state Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Midfield, said he would urge Riley to include the bill in a possible special session if the bill fails to pass Monday.

"I believe that there is no silver bullet here, and money alone won't solve the problem. I don't care how much we have," said Lou Harris, head of Faulkner University's criminal justice department. "I don't think we can just rubber-stamp the kinds of things that have already been recommended."

Victims advocate Miriam Shehane, a task force member, said she wants to steer the group away from solutions that would reduce or eliminate prison time. Citing a retired couple that lost their life savings to a scam artist, she said even nonviolent criminals can have a devastating impact.

"There is a punishment side to committing a crime. And that's what victims expect," she said.


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