Ward Pursues Prison Reforms

MONTGOMERY — Some state lawmakers want the Department of Corrections to explore expanding community-based programs as a way to ease prison crowding.

State Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the legislative committee that oversees prisons, said Texas saved about $241 million during three years by moving people from prisons to community corrections programs. Kentucky estimates it will save about $400 million during 10 years with similar changes.

“These are conservative states with conservative solutions,” Ward, R-Alabaster, said Tuesday. The committee is asking for a blueprint in the next few months of what expansion in Alabama could look like.

Department of Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said community corrections programs vary from county to county. Some mandate inmates spend nights in jail and go to work, school or drug treatment during the day. Others are probation-type programs where inmates live at home and check in with officers daily. Some use electronic monitoring devices.

It cost about $10 to $12 a day to have an inmate in community corrections, Ward said. Earlier this year, Thomas said it costs $42.54 a day to care for an inmate in prison, including $10.47 in health care, $24.40 in salaries and benefits for staff, and $2.41 for food and clothing.

Violent offenders are not eligible for community corrections programs. Of the about 26,000 inmates in the Department of Correction’s care, about 74 percent are violent offenders.

But expanding community corrections, for which the state spends about $5 million a year, will have one immediate challenge: Not all counties have the programs. Though the number has grown in recent years, 23 counties have yet to get on board.

“You can’t force anyone to have community corrections,” Ward said. “But hopefully there is a way ... to make communities realize the benefits.”

All north Alabama counties have the programs.

Committee member and Senate Democrat Bobby Singleton, of Greensboro, said some community corrections and work-release programs have struggled in economically depressed rural areas.

“Because of poverty, there is no work,” he said.

Getting people jobs is key to keeping them out of prison in the long term, officials said.

Lawmakers allocated about $389 million for corrections for 2014. That’s about $16.7 million more than in the current budget year. About $5 million of that will be used to hire 100 new correctional officers. Earlier this year, Thomas said the inmate-to-correctional officer ratio was 11 to 1.

Next to the state Medicaid agency, corrections is the biggest general fund expense.

Currently, state prisons are at about 188 percent capacity and staffed at about 60 percent.

“I don’t think you can build your way out of (the problem), and even if you could, we can’t afford to staff it,” Ward said.

Sen. Roger Bedford, D-Russellville, said Tuesday he’s in favor of expanding into community programs. The state spends too much on prisons and not enough on education, he said.

“That’s where you stop crimes from happening,” Bedford said. “Educate people and let them get decent jobs and support their families.”

Mary Sell is the Montgomery bureau chief for the TimesDaily. She can be reached at [email protected].

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