Making the punishment fit the crime

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By M.J. Ellington
Montgomery Bureau

Published: Monday, November 16, 2009 at 3:30 a.m.
Last Modified: Sunday, November 15, 2009 at 11:12 p.m.

MONTGOMERY – Alabama’s corrections commissioner said he’s given up on ever having enough money to build facilities for alternative programs to help keep nonviolent inmates from returning to prison.

But Commissioner Richard Allen said without the money to build new LIFE Tech centers around the state, he’s putting the program at existing facilities, including Decatur Work Release facility. Corrections added 200 beds for the program in space originally used for other purposes at the Decatur facility for men in 2008.

But LIFE Tech is just one example of several programs the state is trying to reduce the prison population and keep offenders from coming back later.

Not everyone agrees on whether people sentenced to prison should have alternatives to “hard time.” Others say with bulging, outdated prisons and a prison population that only gets larger, Alabama has little choice but to look at other programs for solutions.

Allen said Alabama must try alternatives. He asks a question that has become a cliche in the corrections field but makes a point about the choices people sending others to prison must make.

“Do we want to reserve prison beds for people we are afraid of or do we want to fill them up with people we are mad at?” he asked.

Allen said he believes people who commit violent crimes belong in maximum security prison, but nonviolent offenders might pay their debt to society more effectively elsewhere.

Technical violators are one example. People on probation who fail to meet with their probation officer, fail a drug test or miss a restitution payment often go back to prison. Allen said such violators would be appropriate for community technical violation programs instead.

As the state tries drug courts, alternative sentencing and community corrections to reduce the prison population, some lawmakers say the state is headed in the right direction.

But other legislators say while the state has desperate prison overcrowding, they still need data showing long-term results on different programs to know what works best.

Allen said Decatur’s LIFE Tech-style program for men combines substance abuse treatment, counseling, reading skills/GED preparation and job preparation with incarceration. Most nonviolent inmates serving time in state prison have those needs, he said.

Lauderdale County District Attorney Chris Connolly is among people who think that some offenders the state classifies as nonviolent should start out in prison.

Connolly said he was surprised and frustrated that a Florence woman did not serve at least five years of her sentence before she became eligible for parole. The parole board denied her early release.

Connolly said the woman sold drugs near a school and a day care center. Some of her customers are in maximum security prison while she is at Birmingham Work Release Facility. “Is that really nonviolent?” Connolly asked.

Allen said the issue of where inmates go to serve their time is under constant review. District attorneys and judges do not always agree that something other than maximum security prison is the right way to go.

Alabama counties that account for 83 percent of all prison sentences now have community corrections programs. Allen said he wants the alternatives in all counties.

“We are doing everything we can to reduce the population but we’re averaging 62 more per month coming in than a year ago,” Allen said.

But 40 percent of new inmates have split sentences that require a specific amount of prison time served before they are even eligible for parole.

The state buys beds in a private therapeutic inpatient program in Columbiana, a private prison in South Alabama and in some county jails that agreed to lease the state bed space.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, said Alabama needs to find a way to make the punishment fit the crime.

Some crimes demand that the offender do hard time, Black said. But there is a “very, very serious overcrowding problem” in prisons, Black said, and the state must look for alternatives.

“We have to find a way to be smart in sentencing,” he said.

Another legislator who worked in law enforcement for 25 years, including time as an FBI hostage negotiator and an Alabama court referral officer, agrees.

Rep. Mac McCutcheon, R-Capshaw, said the state is trying a number of programs right now.

“We need to see results from several years to know how successful they are,” McCutcheon said.

“I am definitely not opposed to the idea of alternative programs. I feel like we are headed in the right direction but we don’t know yet which ones work best and which ones interact most effectively,” he said.

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


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