Crowded prisons, funding problems spur early parole

By M.J. Ellington
Montgomery Bureau

Published: Sunday, November 8, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, November 7, 2009 at 10:42 p.m.

MONTGOMERY – When a Florence woman sentenced to 15 years in prison for drug distribution came up for parole four months later, people familiar with the case asked why.

The answer to cases like Felita LaShay Vaughn’s may lie with Alabama’s extreme prison overcrowding and limited prison alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

Vaughn went to Julia Tutwiler prison in July for distributing drugs. Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly, who prosecuted her case, said he had hoped she would serve at least five years.

Connolly said he was surprised when Vaughn’s request for parole was on the list of cases the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles lined up for review Oct. 27.

The board denied Vaughn’s request and set October 2013 as the earliest possible time to review her case again.

So how did Vaughn end up on the list for possible parole so soon after going to prison?

The way the state defines crimes like Vaughn’s and the type of sentence she got may help explain, said Robert Oaks, assistant executive director of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

Although Vaughn was convicted of distributing drugs, her crime was nonviolent and victimless by standard law enforcement definitions.

With no victim to notify before an inmate comes up for parole, Oaks said such cases may reach parole board review faster than others. With a prison system now at 200 percent capacity, federal government monitoring is constant.

“If we don’t free up beds, then the federal government will come in and order us to release a certain number by a specific time and they won’t look at who is most appropriate,” Oaks said.

Overcrowding and funding problems are issues with the corrections system, but not the only ones.

Oaks questioned whether a maximum security prison or a facility with drug and mental health treatment and job skills training is the better place to put nonviolent inmates. The shift to a different form of sentence for such inmates would free maximum security prison beds for violent criminals who commit murder, manslaughter, rape and other related crimes, he said.

With maximum security prison expenses at $43 per day per inmate, state prison is the most expensive punishment available. Less restrictive programs cost as little as $10 per day.

About 40 percent of inmates who go through state prisons commit crimes later and return to prison. As many as 90 percent have mental health or substance abuse issues that, left untreated, contribute to their return, Oaks said.

Options are especially limited for women like Vaughn. But one option, L.I.F.E. Tech Transition Center for Women in Wetumpka, combines treatment, education and 24-hour supervision, Oaks said. Goals are to change behavior, educate and prepare the inmate to go to work after release.

Only 4 percent of women completing L.I.F.E. Tech return to prison, but the program is under-used, Oaks said. About 600 women per year go through the individualized six-month program that could take 1,200. A similar program for men in Thomasville stays full.

Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen stresses the need for prison drug and mental health treatment each year during budget hearings before the Legislature.

Allen said without such intervention, the combination is a recipe for a return to prison.

Oaks, Allen and Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said the system’s overcrowding and funding problems mean the state must develop more alternatives for nonviolent offenders.

But solutions are a challenge.

Pressure to empty overcrowded prison beds coexists with a growing number of state laws that encourage stiffer sentences for nonviolent crimes and recidivists.

Judges concerned about inmates returning to their communities rapidly often use split sentencing to direct criminal punishment.

Oakes said a growing number of judges order split sentences that require a minimum amount of time in state prison before parole consideration. If a judge’s order does not allow for transfer to another type of facility, then the transfer cannot happen.

Cobb said probation officers who advise judges do not always recommend the alternatives either, but she urges judges to consider alternatives.

Corrections, Pardons and Paroles and the court system are working together to identify nonviolent split-sentence offenders who are appropriate for other facilities.

Cobb asks judges to consider alternative sentencing for nonviolent offenders. Alternatives, especially community-based ones, allow offenders to work, provide for their families and pay court costs, fines and restitution, she said.

“There is an indisputable connection between mental health problems, drug abuse and criminal behavior,” Cobb said. She wants drug courts in every county, well-coordinated community corrections programs, and sentencing, when appropriate, to L.I.F.E. Tech centers.

Bennet Wright, sentencing commission statistician, said state data show that the vast majority of crimes that women commit are nonviolent.

Wright said if more affordable drug and mental health treatment were available in the community, more judges might sentence to state prisons less often. Judges hesitate to sentence people with drug problems to outpatient care that leaves them free at night.

Of the state’s 67 counties, 22 have no drug treatment programs, he said.

M.J. Ellington is the Montgomery bureau chief for the TimesDaily.


One Response

  1. Something not only has to be done about the overcrowding in our prisons, but also the judges that give too harsh of a sentence to non-violent crimes!!!! My husband was sentenced to 18 YEARS for a non-violent, FIRST TIME, crime. Trafficing Marj. He was denied the right to face his accuser also! Because we are financially unable to pay someone to help us on his case, he sits in a prison in Elmore co, with no air in summer months and no heat in winter! If he goes to the yard they get locked outside with ONE hole in the ground to use as a bathroom and no toilet paper! These may be criminals, BUT they are NOT animals. Who sets the rules to be followed in our prisons? Who ever it is, surely doesnt have a loved one residing in one of them!!! Do the judges care that they send people to leave in such conditions for however long they choose? Something has got to be done about our prison overcrowding and the judicial system! One bad apple in it, ruins it for the honest, go by the book judges, etc. thanks for your time. sincerely, ala resident

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