Jefferson County law enforcement worries about corrections program getting ax from county

Posted by Thomas Spencer — Birmingham News August 17, 2009
Jefferson County’s The county’s top criminal justice officials think prisons will crowd if a budget cut dismantles the Community Corrections program.

The Jefferson County Commission’s plan to zero out the county’s $2.7 million contribution to the Community Corrections Program in the next budget would compromise public safety and dismantle a key cog in the criminal justice machine, one that has helped keep down jail populations and reduce recidivism, court and law enforcement officials said.

The move will cripple a program that has been held up as a model in the state and throughout the country, said presiding Judge Scott Vowell.

The county’s top criminal justice officials, including Vowell, District Attorney Brandon Falls and Sheriff Mike Hale, have signed on to a plea to the Jefferson County Commission to continue funding the UAB TASC program, or Treatment Alternatives For Safer Communities.

The program runs drug courts, mental health courts and domestic violence courts — cases that would be shifted back to the normal judicial system. TASC also currently supervises 3,342 felony offenders in the community.

“Without funding, there will be no one to supervise these offenders and hold them accountable for the conditions of their release,” the letter from the Criminal Justice Management Committee says. “There will be more victims, more arrests and more people in the county jail and prison.”

As it prepares a budget for the year beginning in October, the commission is eliminating all support for agencies that are not departments of the county. Even with the passage of a replacement occupational tax, the county is sticking with drastic cuts because of the economy and uncertainty over how much the new version of the tax will generate.

But UAB TASC supporters say cutting the $2.7 million the agency receives will jeopardize the operation of the court system and seriously compromise public safety in the community. The county provides half of the agency’s budget, and UAB provides space and administrative support. That base of support allows TASC to generate the other half through contracts with state agencies, offender fees and federal grants, according to Foster Cook, the agency’s director.

TASC has been supported by the county since 1977, but its importance has grown dramatically in recent years. In the late 1990s, under a federal court order to reduce jail overcrowding, the county considered building an expensive new jail, but instead created new programs to divert offenders into treatment or alternative sentences.

Among the programs that could be eliminated if the cuts go through:

Risk assessments and background checks judges use to make bail decisions.

Supervision and drug testing of defendants released on bond.

Indigent offender bonds.

Community service and litter details.

Theft restitution court.

Domestic violence victims advocacy services.

Substance abuse treatment beds.

Mental health treatment beds.

Drug testing for released prisoners.

Vowell said that without TASC’s offender screening, judges will have difficulty deciding who is safe to release and who should be kept in jail. “Without that information the judge is going to have to make these decisions blindly,” Vowell said.

Judges will likely err on the side of caution and the jail population will swell, he said.

Under a federal court agreement, the county has room for only 1,000 prisoners, and right now they are near that maximum. There are 933 prisoners in jails in Birmingham and Bessemer, Vowell said.

The alternative courts that TASC runs shift many drug offenders out of the clogged court system into an alternative where they receive treatment. The same goes with offenders with serious mental health problems who had previously languished in jail without treatment.

The proposed cuts in Jefferson County come at a time when the state court and penal system are trying to spread Jefferson County’s innovative approaches throughout the state.

If TASC can’t function, the courts, and ultimately the prisons, will fill, Vowell said.

“In the end, that means more people are going to go to the state penitentiary,” Vowell said.


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