4 INMATES KILLED AND 6 OFFICERS HURT….and all of the blame sits on the shoulders of our state legislators. Those deaths and officers being hurt is like reading about events that occurred in our prisons during the early 1900s. The Elmore Prison has 1,145 prisoners and 72 officers to control the prison. You got to be kidding me.

The most commonly believed myth about our prisons is that they are full of non-violent offenders. However, nothing could be further from the truth. According to the Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) and the Alabama Sentencing Commission, 75 percent of Alabama’s prisoners are incarcerated for violent offenses. While Alabama law defines “violent offenses” to include drug trafficking and burglary of an occupied building, only 2 percent of Alabama prisoners are incarcerated for drug trafficking and only 4 percent are incarcerated for burglary of an occupied building.

The fact is that more than one out of every three inmates (39 percent) is incarcerated for capital murder, murder, rape in the first degree (forcible), or robbery in the first degree (deadly weapon).

The Myth is , We could release all of the non-violent prisoners under another program and reduce or even empty a lot of our prisons. The truth is If all non-violent offenders were released from prison, Alabama’s prisons would still be at 137 percent of capacity.

According to Bennet Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, “release the 25 percent of non-violent inmates, roughly 6,000 of them, and you still would have 18,200 people in a prison system that was designed to hold 13,318.”

The non-violent offenders typically serve much shorter sentences than violent offenders. Many of them only serve a sentence long enough for them to complete a substance abuse program in the DOC.  The typical sentence for a drug offender, for instance, is less than 12 to 18 months.

You can’t ignore that most all non-violent offenders have a prior conviction for a violent offense, and most of them were committed to prison after they failed in a probation or community corrections program.

It appears only one of the problem is the system needs an updated way to teach the prisoners a skill and obtain GED’s, so when they get released they have a trade and skill that can produce a income for them. This is what will keep most from repeating the same old mistake of breaking the law.

The DOC budget for 2017 is $457,142,465.  Of that funding only .15 percent of the funding comes from federal grants. The remainder, 99.85 percent, comes from the General Fund or is generated by the DOC itself.  Corrections is the sixth largest expenditure by the State annually.

Our prisons are overcrowded because it has been politically expedient to be “tough on crime,” not because anyone is making money from locking people up. Thus, a lot of the judges have had the ability to make a decision on the merits of a case has been taken away by self serving politicians, who want to show their citizens, “I can be tough on crime”.

While Alabama’s prison population rose 41 percent from 1994 to 2012, and 349 percent from 1978 to 2012, the increase in the population has not only stopped, but is now on the decline.  In 2013 the legislature implemented  sentencing guidelines to reduce the number of non-violent defendants that qualified for incarceration. In 2015 the Alabama Legislature passed the Prison Reform Act that strengthened community corrections supervision programs, created a new class D felony designation for some nonviolent offenses, prioritized prison space for those convicted of violent and dangerous offenses, promoted evidence based services and treatment for people receiving supervision in the community, mandated prison re-entry programs, added 100 new probation and parole officers, and made the parole process more transparent.

As a result of these reforms the prison population has declined by 2,500 inmates in three years.  The biggest impact has been that fewer nonviolent offenders, including drug offenders, are being incarcerated.

The implementation of sentencing guidelines and the Prison Reform Act of 2015 were a good start, and they provide guidance as to how we can achieve further reductions to our prison population.

Community corrections programs should be expanded across the state and more criminal defendants should be allowed to qualify.  These programs allow convicted defendants to remain in their community under intensive supervision and include substance abuse rehabilitation services and mental health services.

The State should fund more prison re-entry programs, and should fund more in-prison rehabilitation and education programs for inmates who will be returning to society. To reduce recidivism we must ensure that inmates are ready and able to live a crime free life.  Doing so isn’t “going easy” on them, it’s ensuring that they will not again be a burden on society.

Courts need the tools to determine how best to assess the needs of criminal defendants so that rehabilitation will be more effective. Better assessments of criminal defendants will lead to more effective rehabilitation and better results.

To this end the State should fully fund Drug Treatment Courts, Mental Health Courts, Veteran’s Treatment Courts, and other Deferred Sentencing Programs that are designed to address the causes of criminal conduct.  These programs give offenders an opportunity to make amends by taking responsibility for their conduct, paying restitution, completing treatment and rehabilitation programs, in exchange for a dismissal, and ultimately, an expungement of their charges.  These programs prevent people from becoming convicted felons and allows them to become productive citizens again.

The State should fund mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment for all Alabamians.  Many people most in need of mental health treatment or substance abuse treatment are the people least able to afford it.

The good news is that the necessary reforms needed to fully address prison overcrowding are far more effective and affordable than incarceration.

To fully address the problem of prison overcrowding the first step is to understand the problem.  The problem cannot be understood if we cling to commonly believed myths about the current state of our prisons.

A lot of this information has been taken from a article written my By David Carpenter, Circuit Court Judge Jefferson County, Bessemer Division, Presiding Judge of the Criminal Division.


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