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Monday, December 12, 2005

Jail inmate growth ties county

By Sebastian Kitchen
Montgomery Advertiser

MONTGOMERY, AL -- Plans for a $50 million jail expansion and Montgomery County's monthly tab of more than $20,000 to house inmates in other counties are prompting elected officials to discuss options to control the jail population.

County Commission Chairman Todd Strange said the commission does not want judges to compromise public safety. But it wants to know if there are possible measures to keep Montgomery from sending the overflow inmates to three other counties at taxpayers' expense.

"We encourage you within your power and authority to have beds available for those who need it," Strange told at least 10 Montgomery County judges during a meeting last week.

Judges have few answers. Judge Charles Price, presiding judge of the 15th Circuit, said the constitution and Alabama law detailing crimes and appropriate actions and punishments limit them.

Price said the judicial system is not broken, adding, "It is working within the limit of what we can do."

Plans have been approved for a $50 million jail expansion but it will be August or September 2008 before it can be occupied. The capacity will be expanded from 305 to 1,001.

Strange said there is serious crowding at the jail, which was opened in the 1980s with a capacity of 305. Bunk beds were added last year, doubling the capacity, and allowing inmates to move off the floors. The jail is averaging more than 600 inmates.

Montgomery County has paid $238,000 over the past 14 months to house inmates in Lowndes, Marengo and Wilcox counties. Strange expects the cost to reach between $700,000 and $1 million before the jail expansion is completed.

A community corrections program is allowing some convicts an alternative to jail stays and helps the county curb crowding. Commissioners are looking at properties to expand the community corrections program.

Price said community corrections is one of the "finest programs" the county could initiate. He said more than a 1,000 people, all of whom would have been in a detention facility, have utilized the community corrections program. He said they are selective and none of the participants have gone on to commit violent crimes.

After hearing the Administrative Office of Courts has reduced funding for jury trials, county commissioners offered to pay to seat juries to help relieve pressure on the docket and reduce the numbers awaiting trial.

But judges did not believe there would be enough impact to justify the expense.

Circuit Court Judge Johnny Hardwick said he was curious if the commission could use the funding to purchase electronic monitors for people awaiting trial. Those may be explored as alternatives.

Another delay in the judicial system is the Department of Forensic Sciences, which performs the laboratory work on murders, rapes and other violent crimes. The wait for evidence to be returned from the department could be more than 18 months because of the backlog of cases.

"The Legislature is the only body that can do something about it," Price said.


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