News from the Tennessee Valley Opinion


Only matter of time before new jail is filled to capacity

To look at the sprawling new Morgan County jail complex at First Avenue Southeast and Lee Street Northeast, one might think there won't be an overcrowding problem there for decades.

But the new jail that will hold 400 inmates when it opens early next year needs politics on its side to avert overcrowding.

It's greatest allies in resolving the problem are Gov. Bob Riley and the Legislature. Its backup is the sheriff's ability to politic the state Department of Corrections.

In a speech earlier in the year, federal Judge Bill Pryor said Alabama's justice system is in crisis. As state attorney general, Judge Pryor tried to bring reform to the system. Now Gov. Riley has the report of a commission he appointed to study the problem. Will it, like the one Judge Pryor initiated as attorney general, get sidetracked when timid politicians fear voter backlash for spending money on prisoners?

Judge Pryor says the state needs uniform sentencing. He's right. A man who steals a pig in Morgan County should get the same sentence as a man who steals one in Winston County.

That, he says, would cut down on overcrowding in prisons.

A variety of prison reforms alternatives should surface when the Legislature meets next month. Unfortunately, many of them will mean investing in more than barbed wire and prison bars.

A 2003 federal court order relieved county jails of their crowded conditions but the backlog is growing again because judges are sentencing convicts faster than the state releases them from prison.

If that trend continues, the new Morgan County Jail might see its excess capacity disappear as the state takes inmates from the crowded jails.

Coffee County Sheriff Ben Moates has 40 inmates ready for transfer, but Montgomery County has only four.

"We talk with each county on a daily basis, at least on a weekly basis, and assess the needs of counties on a case-by-case basis," Brian Corbett, a prisons spokesman explained.

Interpreted, that means prison officials look around the state for who has empty cells and who doesn't.

That's not the solution, of course. Counties should not be forced to build jails because the Legislature won't address sentencing and prison reform.

The new $23 million jail here, even before it opens, is causing major strains on the county budget.

The issue has hit home in Morgan County and will do so in other counties if legislators don't act on the problem next year.

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