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Riley: Moving inmates from county jails faster not possible

By Desiree Hunter
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Jefferson County officials are looking for other ways to reduce costs and overcrowding in their jails after Gov. Bob Riley told them it is "not physically possible" to remove state inmates from county jails faster than 30 days.

Jefferson County Commissioner Bettye Fine Collins wrote Riley last month asking that the current 30-day limit after sentencing be shortened to 14 days. She said Monday she was let down by the governor's response, which was received Friday.

"I'm disappointed that they can't help us with it," Collins said. "What we're trying to do now internally is be sure that all of our systems of communication are in place and looking to perhaps go to a monitoring system for nonviolent criminals instead of having them in the jails."

Most of the state's 67 counties have their own jails and inmates who receive state sentences are supposed to be transferred to a state prison within 30 days, according to a Montgomery judge's order approving the terms of a settlement on the jail overcrowding issue.

There were 597 state inmates in county jails with transcripts ready for transfer as of May 25, and about 270 of those were in Jefferson County. At that time, 139 of the inmates had been in county jails for 21-30 days and 11 were past the 30-day time limit.

Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director for the Association of County Commissions of Alabama, said counties across the state are being burdened by overcrowding and the board has not taken an official position on making its own request to reduce the timeframe.

"We've never agreed that prisoners are our responsibility the first 30 days. There's nothing in the (state) statute about 30 days," he said.

"If our counties contact us and express concern about 30 days, we've always reserved the right to go back to court and talk about that," Brasfield said.

Riley said in his May 31 response that corrections officials spend a full day each week processing inmates from Jefferson County, which is the largest in the state.

"Because of these and other extraordinary efforts, the Department is in complete compliance with its obligations in Jefferson County and in all counties," Riley wrote. He also pointed out that Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen has helped clear out a backlog of hundreds of state inmates who had been in county jails past the limit.

"Unfortunately, at this time it is not physically possible for the Department of Corrections to accommodate your request...," he said. "The state system remains at 200% capacity and is unable to expand beyond its present capacity."

Jefferson County has two jails — one in Bessemer and the other in Birmingham — and is under a federal order not to exceed 1,200 inmates. Collins said in her May 3 letter to Riley that there were 1,248 inmates in the jails and she feared federal interdiction — especially since the Bessemer jail will soon be closing during construction while it is expanded.

Scott Vowell, who is Jefferson County's presiding judge, is also on the county's Criminal Justice Coordinating Committee, which has been looking for solutions to the overcrowding problem.

He said plans are already in place to use new sentencing guidelines to get nonviolent offenders out of jail faster, but those won't help with reducing the numbers significantly enough to offset the impending transfer of inmates to Birmingham while the other jail is being renovated.

Another concern is that the inmate population historically grows during June, July and August and the jails are already at capacity.

"People want to lock up criminals and throw the key away, but no one wants to pay the price that it takes," he said. "If the state can't take them any faster, we'll just have to do everything we can with whatever assets we have."

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

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