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MONDAY, MAY 14, 2007

Prison population on rise
People behind bars in Alabama near all-time high after end of fast paroles

MONTGOMERY (AP)— The number of inmates squeezed into Alabama’s overcrowded prisons is back near the state’s all-time high of 28,440 just six months after the end of a second parole board that helped release inmates faster and created more prison space.

The state’s prisons were built to handle less than half of the 28,338 inmates who were behind bars in March. Corrections officials say the numbers will likely get worse before they get better, with no plans to reinstate the second board and a yearslong lag until new sentencing guidelines make a substantial dent.

March is the most recent month for which complete inmate population numbers are available.

Predicted result

“Overall the population is rising again, which is consistent with the projections prior to just before the second parole board was put into place,” Alabama Department of Corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said in a recent interview. “It’s something we knew was going to happen.”

But officials like the Alabama Sentencing Commission’s Rosa Davis say things could be a lot worse and would have been if not for the work done by the second board.

The prison population was lowered to 26,600 during the three years of the second board, which began in 2003. It was dissolved on Sept. 30 after state legislators failed to pass a bill that would have extended it for another three years.

Commission report

A 2003 sentencing commission report predicted there would be 32,106-33,415 inmates in Alabama prisons in September 2007.

“We need to look at what it would have been if no changes had been made at all,” Davis said. “That’s an important part. If you look at these reports, then you have a differential of possibly 5,000 inmates that DOC is not responsible for today.”

Opponents of renewing the second board said it wasn’t needed anymore because the number of eligible parole cases had dwindled low enough for one board to handle.

Robert Oakes, a Pardons and Paroles division director, said judges have been issuing more split sentences where inmates serve a portion of their sentence in prison and the rest on probation. Only sentencing judges can review those cases, Oakes said.

“A large portion of the DOC population are split sentences that nobody can review or release,” he said. “At one time at least one-third were inmates on split sentences.”

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said the second board had an “unintended consequence” of reducing the department’s budget by releasing inmates who would have otherwise been employed in a work-release program. The program went from generating about $19 million annually to around $9 million with the smaller work force, he said.

Filling the void

Allen isn’t voicing support for bringing the board back, but says Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb’s reform plans should fill the void and continue where the panel left off.

“She expects (judges) to support sentencing guidelines and that’s going to be putting the numbers down,” he said. “She wants to establish drug courts in every county and we want community corrections programs in every county. She’ll be pushing those programs with us.”

The new voluntary guidelines that let judges shorten sentences for certain drug felonies from one to 10 years to a range of one to about 51/2 years went into effect in October and early results are already being seen, said Lynda Flynt, executive director of the sentencing commission.

“I think that you’ve got to take into consideration that these standards are ongoing and they will have an immediate effect, but we won’t know how much until we have solid data,” she said. “We do know admissions are down. We’re hoping that it’s because of these changes.”

The corrections department has admitted 5,224 people from October through March, 332 less than the 5,546 admitted during Oct. 2005-March 2006.

Commission statistician Bennet Wright said the agency is gathering data on judges’ compliance to see if they’re following the commission’s prison and sentence length recommendations.

Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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