Pubdate: Wed, 11 May 2005
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Advertiser Co.
Author: Samira Jafari, Associated Press
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing
Bookmark: (Incarceration)


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

But state parole board officials raised questions about the number,
which the Alabama Sentencing Commission compiled from the Department
of Corrections, Alabama Office of Courts and the 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

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 the prisons were
built for 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.

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.
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