Pubdate: Thu, 29 Jul 2004
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2004sThe Advertiser Co.


Alabama is paroling far more people than before and more than 90 percent of
them are staying out of trouble and thus out of prison.

That's good news, but it also raises once again the question of sentencing
reform, which lies at the heart of Alabama's multi-faceted prison problem.
Alabama's population of parolees jumped 31 percent last year, the second
highest increase in the nation. (North Dakota was first at 53 percent, but
with a prison population about 1-16th the size of Alabama's, it doesn't take
a lot of paroles to produce a large percentage jump.) More than 1,900
inmates were paroled from June 2003 to June of this year. So far, only 6
percent of those released early have returned to prison, a most encouraging
rate of recidivism. That has provided a modest degree of relief from the
serious overcrowding of the state's prison system, but there are still about
twice as many inmates in state custody as the system's facilities were
designed to handle.

There's also a significant financial impact on the system.

Most of those paroled were on work release, meaning that they were employed,
with 40 percent of their earnings diverted to the Department of Corrections.
"It's a misconception that because 2,000 inmates are gone, we're better off
budgetwise," spokesman Brian Corbett said.

At the same time, it is surely better for the state to have these
individuals out of DOC custody and trying to become contributing citizens.
The fact that so few of the parolees are returning to prison gives
Alabamians ample justification to question why they were incarcerated in the
first place.

That is not to say that crime should go unpunished; not at all. The question
is whether the punishment makes sense, whether incarceration is the best
option in terms of public safety and efficient use of public funds. For some
offenders, the answer is clear.

Incarceration is the proper choice. "There are some prisoners that should
never see the light of day and there are some that are quite safe to
release," observed Cynthia Dillard of the state Board of Pardons and

The latter category should be the focus of the reform debate.

Realistic sentence durations for nonviolent offenses and expanded use of
alternative sentences are critical to the long-term objective of bringing
the prison population to more manageable levels while still properly
protecting both the safety of the law-abiding public and the fiscal
interests of the taxpayers. 
- ---
MAP posted-by: Josh