Thursday, March 02, 2006

A much-needed scolding

The Birmingham News
Thursday, March 02, 2006

Every now and then, a good scolding is a good thing. Stern words from a parent to a misbehaving child may be just what's needed, short of the woodshed, to convey the message that enough is enough. Government, too, sometimes needs to be told it isn't doing what it should be doing.

Tuesday, a state judge overseeing a jail crowding case sent the Alabama Department of Corrections a much-needed, strong message. Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy dressed down prison officials for not using more than 800 empty slots in work-release centers to make room for 600 state prisoners sitting in county jails in violation of a 2002 court order. Under that order, the state is supposed to pick up newly convicted prisoners within 30 days.

"What I see is 800 beds we're not using. ... There's something wrong with this picture," Shashy said.

State prison officials' response was less than satisfactory. New prisons Commissioner Richard Allen said inmates can't be transferred to work release centers unless they are considered a low security risk. The vast majority of inmates in prisons and jails are not.

Even granting Allen that point, he was unconvincing. There are more than 27,000 prisoners under the Department of Corrections' supervision. It's hard to believe prison officials can't find 600 inmates who aren't security risks.

What's easier to believe is that the state isn't taking its obligation under the court order seriously enough.

Certainly, prisons are overcrowded. They have twice as many inmates as they are designed to hold, and the prison population is growing by more than 100 a month.

The answer, though, isn't to dump prisons' problems onto the counties. But that's exactly what the state is doing in leaving prisoners in county lockups longer than they should - and, with it, shifting the costs of housing and feeding the prisoners to the counties as well.

Long term, the state must create more space for prisoners or slow the number of prisoners flooding into prisons through alternatives such as drug treatment and community corrections.

Short term, the state needs to find ways to live up to its legal obligations.

With more than 800 free beds in work-release centers going unused even as more than 600 prisoners wait in county jails beyond the court-imposed time limit, it doesn't look like prison officials are trying very hard.

If strong words by the judge don't get prison officials' attention, maybe it is time to take them to the woodshed.

That's a great "woodshed" line. I have not yet met Mr. Allen and truthfully I was holding out hope that he would come into the prison system and actually help to fix things.

But, like the B'Ham News, I do not believe for one nano-second that 600 prisoners in 27,000 cannot be found to fill the work release beds. Considering that 500 Alabama citizens a year are sent to prison for simple possession of marijuana I dare say there are THOUSANDS of people in prison who could fill those beds.

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