A commission says the state must find better ways to deal with overcrowding
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A commission says the state must find better ways to deal with overcrowding 

By Mike Cason 
Montgomery Advertiser 

Alabama must be smarter in the way it punishes nonviolent criminals, said a key member of a panel that will soon advise the Legislature on how to fix the state's prison system. 

The Alabama Sentencing Commission, created by lawmakers three years ago, will issue its recommendations during the legislative session that begins March 4. 

"Alabama is doing a good job with the murderers, robbers and rapists," said Chief Assistant Attorney General Rosa Davis, who serves on the 15-member commission. "Where we have a problem is with the lower-level offenders." 

The commission will meet Friday to review a draft of its report, Davis said. It also will review proposed legislation on pardons and paroles, community corrections and theft. 

Davis said the commission is likely to recommend changes in two broad areas. First, judges need more options in sentencing. For example, judges are reluctant to use probation because officers carry huge caseloads and more counties need community corrections programs. Programs are under way in only 18 of 67 counties. 

Second, the length of criminal sentences should be adjusted to meet the state's priorities and reflect actual time served. 

Alabama's prison population is at an all-time high of about 27,000. County governments have sued the state to force it to accept inmates from crowded county jails. A federal judge has found the state's women's prison in Wetumpka violates the U.S. Constitution because it is so crowded and understaffed. 

Former Department of Corrections Commissioner Mike Haley told lawmakers in December that his agency needed a 70-percent increase in general fund appropriations next year. 

Buddy Sharpless, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said the state must put more money into community corrections as an alternative for some property offenders and drug offenders who go to state prison. 

For example, a community corrections program could put a thief to work to pay restitution to his victim. Treatment is a better option than prison for some drug offenders. 

Even after making those changes, the state needs two new prisons, Sharpless said, one for men and one for women. 

Davis said fixing the problem will be costly. 

"The best thing that could be said right now is that we're all struggling to come up with answers," Davis said. "Nobody is going to like the price tag." 

Alabama houses inmates more cheaply than any state, Davis said. The national average is about $60 a day per inmate. The southeastern average is about $41. Alabama pays about $27. 

"What are we buying for $27?" Davis asked. "Are we buying some kind of rehabilitation? Or are we buying warehousing? And what does warehousing do for public safety?"