By Samira Jafari
The Associated Press
A newly appointed prison task force was told Tuesday at its first meeting that there are nearly 2,000 nonviolent inmates who may be eligible for parole, similar to others released early to ease overcrowding.
But state parole board officials raised questions about the number, which the Alabama Sentencing Commission compiled from the Department of Corrections, Alabama Office of Courts and the Criminal Justice Information Center.
"That's the first time I saw that number," said Bill Segrest, executive director of the state Board of Pardons and Paroles.
He said it's likely that the estimated 1,979 nonviolent inmates mentioned to the task force are prisoners who had been considered and denied parole already, though the board will check the candidates again.
Sentencing Commission Executive Director Lynda Flynt said the figure was only preliminary and that the criminal histories of the inmates would have to be checked before they are confirmed to be eligible.
The task force is charged with researching and recommending solutions to cut down prison overcrowding, among other corrections issues, though the Department of Corrections has no members on the panel.
"The reason DOC is not represented is because our input will come in the form of testimony to the task force," said DOC spokesman Brian Corbett.
The 11-member prison task force, appointed by Gov. Bob Riley, is made up of judges, attorneys, educators, legislators and a victim advocate and headed by Michael Stephens, a former CEO and president of ReLife Inc., a Birmingham based physical rehabilitation hospital.
There have been at least five other committees appointed since 1983 to deal with prison overcrowding and living conditions. As those groups dissolved over the years, few solutions have emerged, said Vernon Barnett, deputy legal adviser to Riley.
"We've been holding it together without committing to anything long-term," Barnett said.
Stephens said this time there would be answers, because "I'm going to get it done."
The prison system remains at double the capacity the prisons were built for even after a special parole docket was established in April 2003 to grant early releases to nonviolent inmates. The prison population dropped to 26,465 by June 2004 after 3,983 nonviolent inmates were paroled under that program. Still, after most nonviolent inmates were considered for parole, the prison population jumped back to 27,585 by April, said Cynthia Dillard, assistant director for the pardons and paroles board.
While speedy paroles were an effective short-term solution, the state is desperate for long-term plans at alleviating crowding, Barnett told the task force Tuesday.
Task force members said they were interested in expanding community corrections programs and transition centers. Both programs offer inmates educational programs and drug treatment, in hopes of preventing offenders from returning to prison.
Most members saw funding as their major obstacle, though Louis Harris, chair of the criminal justice department at Faulkner University, encouraged the task force to "do some out-of-the-box thinking."
"There is no silver bullet here. Money alone won't fix the problem," Harris said.
Flynt, also a task force member, said the sentencing commission's bill proposing new voluntary sentencing guidelines, which offer shorter prison terms for personal, property and drug felonies, would cut down crowding at no cost. The bill was approved in the House and is awaiting a Senate vote.
These morons never cease to amaze me. And to think we pay them our hard earned tax money to sit around with their thumbs up their collective asses and dance around the problem, poke at it with a stick, trip over it, step on it and yet never really acknowledge it. The last paragraph is almost an acknowledgement....but not quite.
When the first special parole board was formed last year I wrote an LTE that said if the drug laws that send so many of our citizens to prison were not changed then this whole "solution" would be like putting a band-aid on a juggular wound and that the exact number of people let out of prison would be replaced by new "drug criminals" for the same crime thereby fixing NOTHING!!
Alabama Legislators it is really VERY SIMPLE!!
FIX THE DRUG LAWS AND YOU FIX THE PRISON CRISIS!