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Sent: Thursday, March 13, 2003 3:51 PM
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Officials: 2 prisons will close if Riley's budget cuts
News staff writer
MONTGOMERY Two major prisons would have to close and the state's parole process would be shut down if cuts Gov. Bob Riley wrote into his proposed budget became necessary, prison and parole officials told lawmakers Wednesday. Prison Commissioner Donal Campbell and Bill Segrest, executive director of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles, said they cannot believe the cuts outlined in Riley's plan will occur because of the extreme risk they would present to public safety.
State Rep. John Knight, chairman of the House Governmental Finance and Appropriations Committee, cautioned them not to assume major spending cuts aren't on the way.
"I'm not as convinced as you are that it's not going to happen," Knight told Segrest. "I wouldn't labor under the assumption that it will not happen."
Knight said Riley met his constitutional responsibility as governor to present a balanced budget, which, because of revenue shortfalls and increased costs, required 18 percent cuts for many departments from this year's General Fund spending. Now, he said, the Legislature has to fulfill its responsibility to help provide sufficient money to operate state government.
"I am hoping that we will have some revenue measures so we can add some moneys," Knight said. A special
session of the Legislature may be needed to deal with the funding crisis, he said.
Campbell said the cuts would mean $44 million less in his budget. Living with the $189.9 million Riley proposed to give the system from the General Fund would require closing two major prisons, laying off 450 to 550 employees, finding somewhere else to put about 4,000 inmates, and shutting down the work release program, which employs 3,900 inmates, he said.
"It would be devastating for this state, for employees and for the inmates to take this kind of cut," Campbell said.
Some of the state's prisons already house more than twice as many inmates as they were designed to accommodate, Campbell said. The system could not absorb the thousands of inmates who are in the prisons
that would have to close.
"There is no way I believe this is going to happen," said Campbell. He contends funding the prison system is the state's top priority as far as public safety is concerned. "We definitely shouldn't be talking about cuts in this department," he said.
"Hopefully, you will not have to sustain a $44 million cut," Knight told him.
Segrest said Riley's spending plan would cut the Parole Board's budget by 13 percent, bringing it to $12.08 million from the General Fund. Meeting that spending plan would require layoffs of about 70 parole officers, he said.
Laying off that many officers would cause caseloads already averaging 222 parolees or probationers per officer to go over 300. That would make supervision so inadequate as to create "an extreme risk to public safety," Segrest said.
"A lot of offenders are just going to abscond," he said.
At that point, Segrest said, the Parole Board would grant few if any paroles and he would have an ethical duty to tell judges that anyone else placed on probation couldn't be supervised safely.
Also, a shutdown of the parole process would mean more inmates would be headed for the state's crowded
prisons, he said.
"I choose not to believe this is going to happen," Segrest said.
He said he has asked for an $11 million increase in his budget for next year rather than a decrease. If that amount were granted, the Parole Board could add employees and divert 4,000 convicts who otherwise would be headed to lockups.
Several prison officers told reporters at a press conference on the State House steps before the committee hearing that Alabama prisons already are in critical condition and are "in dire need of help."
Annie Latimore, an officer at Staton Correctional Facility in Elmore County and president of a prison employees group, the Alabama State Correctional Association, said one dormitory at Staton has 365 inmates and only two officers on duty.
If one officer leaves for any purpose, there is only a single officer in charge of the dormitory, she said.