Study: Parole, probation issues keeping prisons overcrowded

After years of struggling with some of the nation's most overcrowded prisons, Alabama is finally seeing a reduction in the number of people sentenced to long terms behind bars

By Tim Lockette
The Anniston Star

MONTGOMERY —  After years of struggling with some of the nation's most overcrowded prisons, Alabama is finally seeing a reduction in the number of people sentenced to long terms behind bars, state officials learned Tuesday.

But those changes haven't significantly reduced the prison population — roughly twice the number of inmates the system is built for — because of sluggishness in the state's parole system and a lack of supervision for released inmates, according to researchers.

"The system's not getting relief because we're seeing some slowdowns on the back end," said Andy Barbee, a researcher for the nonprofit Council of State Governments.

Barbee came to Montgomery Tuesday to present the results of a study of prison overcrowding requested by Alabama's Prison Reform Task Force, a body appointed earlier this year to look for solutions to what leaders in both parties are calling a crisis in the state's prisons.

Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country. More than 32,000 people are in some form of state custody, and nearly 26,000 live in prisons built to hold a little more than 13,000, Department of Corrections numbers show. The state's only female maximum security institution, Tutwiler Prison for Women, has been under federal investigation after allegations of sexual abuse of inmates there.

Inmate advocate Diana Summerford said overcrowding has led to violence and even the spread of communicable diseases such as scabies.

"I believe that there's a lot of bad in our prison system, and many of our inmates do not deserve the treatment they receive," said Summerford, a member the group Citizens United for the Reform of Errants.

Many eligible for parole

Lawmakers have largely written off the idea of building new institutions to increase prison capacity. A new prison would take years to come online,  and prisons already take up more than $400 million of the state's $1.8 billion General Fund budget, which is expected to see a revenue shortfall next year.

The Prison Reform Task Force called in the Council of State Governments to find out what's keeping the state's prisons near 200 percent of their capacity. Part of the council's report offered good news: New guidelines on sentencing are reducing the number of people being sent to prison, researchers said.

In 2009, more than 21,000 people got felony sentences, the study showed. In 2013, the number was just under 18,000. Both arrests and convictions declined significantly, with drug convictions dropping by 25 percent.

"Most states would be jumping up and down about these numbers," Barbee said.

Still, Barbee said, researchers were puzzled by the lack of a similar decrease in the prison population. Finally, he said, they realized many of the problems lay on the "back end" of the system —  parole, probation and what happens after inmates are released.

"One in every three of your inmates is eligible for parole," Barbee told the task force.

In 2009, more than 3,000 inmates got parole, about 42 percent of those eligible for release. By 2013, that number had declined to 2,495, or about 36 percent of eligible inmates. Researchers found that more than 1,000 people guilty of drug or property crimes —  generally regarded as the safest inmates to release —  have been eligible for parole for more than a year.

"There are slowdowns in the parole release process," Barbee said.

He said the council would work with the Board of Pardons and Paroles in coming weeks to find out why.

Parole board member Robert Longshore, a member of the task force, defended the board’s actions.

"We are having thousands of parole hearings every year," he said. "They are getting the opportunity to make parole."

Budget reduction forces change

Alabama's parole board meets regularly in Montgomery. Inmates don't appear before the board, but friends, family members, and occasionally lawyers will show up to argue on an inmate's behalf. The outcome of a hearing is often affected by an inmate's prison disciplinary record, which is part of a file that only the Parole Board can see.

Earlier this year, the board declared that it had cleared its backlog of cases for the first time in years. In remarks after the task force meeting, Longshore told The Star that this was still true.

"We've had all the hearings we're obligated to have," Longshore said. He said Barbee was looking not at the number of hearings, but the number of inmates who actually qualified for parole, something determined by the inmate's own behavior.

Task force chairman Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said the parole board was also working with reduced resources as a result of state cutbacks. According to Barbee's numbers, Pardons and Paroles got $42 million from the General Fund in 2008, compared to $27 million in 2015, the fiscal year that begins Wednesday, Oct. 1.

That number doesn't include the revenues from a $40-dollar-per-month supervision fee the state charges to parolees, Longshore said. Parolees who don't pay the fee must prove they can't afford it or go back to prison as parole violators, Longshore said.

Parole fees aren't the only post-prison obstacles inmates face. Barbee said the state could reduce the number of re-offenders by providing better supervision of ex-inmates and more access to substance abuse services. Mental health care for ex-inmates, he said, is even more rare. Forty percent of all people admitted to the Department of Corrections are violators of probation or parole, the council's study found, and 39 percent of those inmates have either drug or mental health problems.

Richard Fox, a Baptist minister who works with inmates, said he's seen first-hand the lack of social support for recently released inmates.

"No money: strike one," he said. "No job: strike two. No place to stay: strike three."

Fox called on the state to team up with churches to set up a system of day-to-day supervision of recently released inmates. Still, the task force isn't likely to settle on a set of recommendations until early next year.

Joyce Vance, a U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, told task force members that other states were able to cut their costs after reforming their prison systems.

"In order to be tough on crime, we also have to be smart on crime," she said. "And to be tough without being smart is a policy we can no longer afford to continue."

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