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Lawmakers push to curb overcrowding in prisons

By Bob Johnson
Associated Press Writer

MONTGOMERY — Members of a legislative oversight committee on Thursday committed to push for legislation next year that would create more drug courts and enhance other programs aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

But one legislator warned that such programs may be used against them by political opponents.

“They will charge that you are soft on crime,” said Sen. Pat Lindsey, D-Butler.

Members of the Legislature’s Joint Prison Oversight Committee agreed Thursday to meet once a month between now and the start of the 2008 regular session in February to come up with bills aimed at reducing prison overcrowding.

Prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said there are currently 24,500 inmates in state facilities, including 21,500 in permanent prisons, which he said were built to hold about 10,400. Allen said about a third of those inmates were charged with drug offenses, while 75 to 80 percent had drug problems that contributed to their crimes.

Critical problem

Committee chairman Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham, said prison overcrowding is a critical problem lawmakers must address.

“If we don’t stop this thing, our budget for prisons is going to equal what we pay for education,” Rogers said.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said drug court programs are currently in operation in 18 counties and on the state’s only federally recognized Indian reservation. She said programs are being developed in another 26 counties. Cobb said she hopes the Legislature will provide funding to have a drug court program in every county within three years.

In drug court programs, defendants charged with felony drug possession or other drug related crimes undergo an intensive program of treatment and testing supervised by a judge. If the defendant remains drug free for a year, the charges are dropped.

“We are trying to craft a judicial system for fixing people and not for filling prisons,” said Cobb, the only Democrat on the nine-member Supreme Court.

Committee members discussed other efforts that could reduce prison overcrowding — including creating additional community corrections programs, releasing elderly and chronically ill patients early and creating additional programs to help prisoners transition into the community from life behind bars.

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 This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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