Friday, April 28, 2006

Suit judge slams jail crowding

By Mike Linn
Montgomery Advertiser

Alabama's corrections commissioner came to court Thursday with a laundry list of ways to reduce prison overcrowding, but was challenged by a Montgomery judge who's tired of good ideas and wants results.

Circuit Judge William Shashy told Commissioner Richard Allen that he would not dismiss a class-action lawsuit against his department until all state inmates are transferred from county jails to prison within 30 days, as required by law. All the state's 67 counties are plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

"You folks aren't doing your job," Shashy told prison officials.

Prison officials blame a lack of funds and space for their failure to move the prisoners. They contend overcrowding can best be alleviated through legislative action, not court orders and lawsuits.

Nearly 500 state inmates have been in county jails more than 30 days, down from more than 600 two months ago.

Shashy will make a decision in the case within a few days.

The class of counties and sheriffs said one option would be to allow sheriffs to simply bring state inmates to prison after 30 days. Currently, the Corrections Department must approve the delivery of a state inmate in all but two counties, Etowah and Calhoun. Judges in those counties have implemented stricter orders than Shashy.

Allen's plans included both long-term and short-term ways to ease overcrowding.

Sentencing reform legislation that will take effect in October, for example, is expected to reduce the prison population by 3,000 within five years, and a new correctional facility in Limestone should be completed in June 2007. Right now, prison officials are reviewing hundreds of nonviolent offenders to see if they would qualify for minimum-security detention or the state's work release program, where there are about 900 empty beds.

Allen said the judge should be more patient because county jails aren't nearly as crowded as the state's prison system.

Ken Webb, an attorney for the counties, disagreed with that assessment.

In Talladega County, for example, there are 100 inmates sleeping on the floor, he said.

"To say that somehow counties are in better shape is troubling," he said. "What if the sheriff in Talladega County said to the judge: 'I know you've sentenced the defendant for this crime, but I'm not going to lock him up because we don't have room?"

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