Prison Reform Options Released

More parole officers, a new classification of low-level felonies and more supervision of inmates after release are three of more than a dozen recommendations issued today by the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force.

The group met in Columbiana andĀ released a list of proposalsĀ aimed at reducing prison crowding while making better use of public safety dollars.

The proposals would reduce the state's prison population by about 4,500 inmates over the next six years, according to projections by researchers with the Council of State Governments Justice Center, which is helping the task force.

The prison population would drop from about 26,000, 195 percent of what the prisons are designed to hold, to about 21,500, 162 percent of capacity, CSG's projection showed.

It would cost the state about $25 million a year to implement the proposals, a total of $151.5 million through fiscal year 2021.

CSG's research showed that the proposals, intended to reduce recidivism and preserve prison space for the most dangerous, would be much cheaper than adding prison beds to achieve the same 162 percent of capacity.

CSG projected that would cost $407.5 million over six years, including additional operational costs.

The task force was appointed as part of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative in Alabama, an effort that involves all three branches of state government.

State leaders launched the initiative last year in response to mounting problems in the prison system and with conditions that some believe put the state at risk of intervention by the federal government.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the task force, said he expected to roll the proposals into a single bill for the legislative session that begins March 3.

Besides the task force proposals, Ward said Alabama must invest some money into construction to add more prison capacity.

There are about 30 people on the task force, including judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, victims' advocates and others.

Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell, a task force member, said he was glad to hear the acknowledgment that more prison beds are needed.

He said that has to be a part of any viable long-term plan.

The recommendations released today fell into three categories: reducing recidivism, prioritizing prison space for violent offenders and holding offenders accountable in prison and after release.

Under the reducing recidivism category, the task force recommended hiring 101 additional probation and parole officers and 22 specialists.

Alabama's probation and parole officers carry average caseloads of about 200. Smaller caseloads would let them focus attention on those more likely to re-offend, the recommendations say.

The plan calls for increased funding for substance abuse and cognitive behavioral programs for felons on probation and parole to help keep those offenders from returning to incarceration. It calls for evaluations of those programs and the outcomes to make sure the dollars are well spent.

CSG research showed that inmates who complete their sentences and leave prison with no supervision are more likely to re-offend and return than those released on parole.

To address that, the recommendations call for mandated periods of supervised release. For example, an inmate with a five-year sentence would be on parole for the final three months of that sentence.

One proposal would create a new class of felony for the least serious, nonviolent offenses. They would be called Class D felonies and would include simple drug possession, forgery and fraudulent use of a credit card, low-level thefts and the least serious burglaries.

Part of the intent would be to divert more of those offenders from prison to save space for more serious offenders.

Ward said that might be the toughest part of the bill to pass. But he said it was important.

"It moves the needle more than any other part of the proposal," he said.

CSG researcher Andy Barbee said 72 percent of Alabama inmates are serving time for a violent offense. Burglaries are classified as violent.

Under the Class D felony proposal, burglaries of uninhabited, non-domicile buildings where no victims are encountered would be considered nonviolent.

Thefts of property valued between $500 and $1,499 would also be a Class D felony.

The task force is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 26, when it is expected to take a formal vote on policy recommendations.

It plans to release a final report with a summary of findings the first week of March.

The CSG's Barbee said that the recommendations aren't intended as a final solution to prison crowding and other problems. He said there is no such remedy and that all states have to constantly monitor and change policies.

"That's the nature of criminal justice," Barbee said.

Ward said he did not expect unanimity on a final plan, but was hopeful that task force members would support 80 percent of it.

He said solutions to the state's prison problems won't come quickly.

"This is a long-term process," Ward said. "It's not something that's going to happen overnight."

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