Thursday, September 22, 2005
News staff writer
The Birmingham News
Alabama counties say they're again footing the bill as sentenced prisoners linger for months in county jails, and they want Gov. Bob Riley to fix it.
Though jails have been forced to house a backlog of state prisoners off and on for years, the situation has pushed county officials to send a resolution to Riley calling for an immediate solution.
"We can't continue this piecemeal solution," said Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama. "We're really weary of doing the same thing over and over again."
County jails now house 1,153 state prisoners ready for transfer into the Department of Corrections, including 644 who've been ready longer than 30 days - the time allowed before the state violates a long-standing court order.
Among other problems, the inmates can't be transferred until DOC employees enter inmate sentencing transcripts into a computer system, and those transcripts are piling up untouched.
County officials believe the state doesn't start counting it's 30-day limit until the records are entered. But prisons spokesman Brian Corbett said the clock starts when DOC receives the paperwork from the court.
"If it is received today and entered 31 days later, we immediately show that that inmate is over 30 days. We are not using this to buy time and keep inmates in county jails without penalty," Corbett said.
Brice Paul, director of jail services for the Alabama Sheriffs Association, said he's learned that only one DOC employee is entering the transcripts, though Corbett said three positions are allotted to that work.
"All of a sudden we've got three stacks over there, 27 inches tall, that have been sent over there by clerks at the circuit courts, that have never gotten into the computer," Paul said. Because of the disarray, prisoners whose paroles have been revoked sometimes get stuck in county jails past the date they're supposed to go free, he said.
Cuts in state court budgets also have left fewer employees in Circuit Courts, so the transcript work required on that end has fallen behind, as well.
"The clerk's offices are vastly understaffed," Paul said. "It can be a month to six months from when the clerk's office gets it to the DOC."
State courts have laid off 212 circuit clerk employees since 2003. Almost half remained vacant through 2004, according to the Administrative Office of the Court.
The bureaucratic backlogs are somewhat of a blessing to the state, but a burden to counties. The state pays county jails $1.75 per inmate per day for food, a fraction of what it pays private prisons where it is housing inmates.
"They'll pay $24 and change a day to keep 200 and something inmates in Louisiana, and they won't pay my sheriffs anything," Paul said.
The Jefferson County jail houses 148 sentenced prisoners, including four who have been there longer than 30 days, said sheriff's department spokesman Randy Christian. He estimated that it costs county taxpayers $62.50 a day to house each state prisoner.
Pushing for a plan:
The Association of County Commissions passed the resolution at its August meeting and sent it to Riley's office this week.
"The State of Alabama prison system has endured years of inadequate funding, tough-on-crime sentencing laws, lack of effective alternative sentencing programs and general neglect," the resolution reads.
It asks the governor to call a special session of the Legislature, if necessary, to develop an immediate plan with long-term solutions to the chronic problems.
Riley has said he's considering a special session to address prison issues.
He's also appointed the Task Force on Prison Overcrowding that's been meeting several months and will soon have a list of recommendations, said Riley spokesman John Matson.
Under Riley, the backlog disappeared for about a year and has stayed below 2002 levels, Matson said.
Good to see the county commissioners giving it to Riley in this fashion. When Bob Riley was running for governor one of his "promises" was that he would abide by the recommendations of the sentencing commission with regard to prison overcrowding. That did not happened.
Later Riley commissioned a second group of "experts" which included prison guards, police, judges and district attorneys but no average citizens, to look at the prison crisis and what was causing the overcrowding.
And now we are on our third group of experts which goes by the lovely name "Task Force on Prison Overcrowding" (why does everything have to be a "task force"?) who are currently wasting our money studying the same things the first two studied.
There couldn't possibly be anything they do not already know with regard to why prisons are so overcrowded.
I guess when Riley said he would "abide by the recommendations of the sentencing commission" he failed to mention which commission that would be. Apparently he plans to keep forming them until they tell him what he wants to hear and then he will abide by their recommendations.
You are a naughty boy Bob, and the citizens of the great state of Alabama do not hold naughty boys in high regard.