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May 11, 2005 - Decatur Daily (AL)

To Free, Or Not To Free

Prison Task Force Takes On Overcrowding, Parole During Its First Meeting

By Associated Press, and Decatur Daily Staff

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MONTGOMERY - 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, Administrative Office of Courts and 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 for which the prisons were built, 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.

North Alabama parolee totals for October 2003 to August 2004 included 240 in Morgan County, 67 in Limestone County and 45 in Lawrence County, according to county probation and parole office totals.

In all three counties, parole officers said most of the offenses are drug or alcohol-related, with others generally property crimes such as theft.

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.

Members of Gov. Bob Riley's newly appointed prison task force, which held its first meeting Tuesday:

  • Mike Stephens, former president and CEO of ReLife Inc.
  • Lou M. Harris, chairman of the criminal justice department at Faulkner University.
  • William N. Clark, a Birmingham criminal defense attorney.
  • Lynda Flynt, executive director of Alabama Sentencing Commission.
  • Rep. Victor Gaston, R-Mobile.
  • Sen. E.B. McClain, D-Midfield.
  • Retired Lee County Circuit Judge Robert M. Harper.
  • St. Clair County District Judge James E. Hill Jr.
  • Randy Hillman, director of the District Attorneys Association.
  • Roy Johnson, chancellor of the state Department of Postsecondary Education.
  • Miriam Shehane, head of Victims of Crime and Leniency.

THE TASK FORCE: In an effort to tackle overcrowded prisons, Gov. Bob Riley has appointed an 11-member prison task force, made up of judges, attorneys, educators, legislators and a victim advocate to focus on the issue.

THE MISSION: The task force is charged with contacting local and national criminal justice experts for guidance and developing long-term solutions to alleviate prison crowding. Expanding community corrections and inmate transition centers were discussed at length Tuesday.

THE DEADLINE: Gov. Bob Riley has given the task force a year to come up with a game plan, though the governor's office said it hopes to have a report within nine months.

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