Prison overcrowding is giving California a black eye outside the state and creating a political firestorm within the Golden State. A federal court order telling the prison officials to reduce the prison population has created some high profile nightmares.
Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange says similar consequences need to be avoided in Alabama where prisons are at 195% capacity.
Times are tough in California.
Business Week reports Conrad Murray, Michael Jackson’s doctor, will spend at least three weeks in prison for his role in Michael Jackson’s death, but even if he gets the maximum four years in jail, the sheriff could let him go to meet a the federal mandate.
The Boston Herald reports Lindsay Lohan’s spent four hours of a 30 day sentence behind bars after she was released due to jail overcrowding.
The American Bar Association reports thousands of California inmates could be released next month. Officials are tweaking a risk-assessment program to try to decide which inmates are the least threats to the public, both those awaiting trial and some already convicted.
Alabama has already faced a similar mandates including Chairs v. Burgess in 1998. The need to reduce prison populations led to the creation of the Alabama Sentencing Commission in 2000. But with a rising prison population, politicians continue to debate today how to deal with the numbers and types of criminals they have behind bars.
One of the biggest questions for years has been is it politically cost effective to keep non-violent prisoners in jail?
Strange told the Federalist Society Friday, Alabama prisons are overcrowded, underfunded and could face “tough choices.” He suggested the state may need to get ahead of the federal courts and take action to release inmates deemed statistically unlikely to commit future violent crimes, sounding much like the actions being considered right now in California.
Strange says such a move would be politically unpopular and must be packaged with some stricter crime laws to gain support.
Early release programs in the past had shocking results. One study reviewed by the Federalist Society panel showed during 18-month period 10,000 of those given an early release were arrested again for more than 10,000 new crimes, that included almost 80 murders.
A snapshot of the current Alabama prison system displays the problem.
According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, the last state prison was opened in Bibb County in 1998. At that time, the department operated with an annual budget of $184,124,223 to house 22,670 inmates each costing an average of $25.26 per day.
In September 2010, the annual operational budget was $433,745,923, to house 31,975 inmates costing an average of $42.30 per day. As of November 12, 2011 than inmate population had dropped to 30,952.
The Department of Corrections officials say, the “rising costs for inmate health care, food, utilities, as well as other costs relative to the increasing inmate populations are the primary rate increase factors.“
The DOC web site identifies Alabama’s prison system as “a medium-size correctional system employing over 3,400 employees“. There are 18 in state correctional facilities, 2 private in state correctional facilities, 11 work release centers, and 4 out of state correctional facilities housing Alabama prisoners in Louisiana.
Strange told the panel late last week, he wants Alabama, not the U.S. Supreme Court, to get a handle on the problem. In his words, “I know that that cannot end well.”
At the same time, Alabama leaders are causing the prison population to increase. Experts agree such efforts to make them took “tough on crime,” look good politically, but become a financial burden almost unbearable by the system.
The most controversial recent law enforcement efforts could add to that problem. The inmates being housed for non-compliance with Alabama’s immigration law take up bed space used in the past as a buffer for the state prison system. Hundreds of state inmates are routinely held in local jails when there is no place for them in the state system.
Strange told a Kiwanis Club meeting in Chelsea a week ago, “We’re trying to keep politics out of it,” referring to the Alabama immigration law.
However, Strange, Governor Robert Bentley and the Republican supporters of the law find themselves lined up against Democratic opponents backed by the federal government. The issue is one of the top political footballs in the nation today.
There are no official numbers currently available from Alabama officials on how many inmates are being held for violating the new law. Many are being held in county jails awaiting judicial disposition. Without deportation authority, some legal experts believe the inmates could be caught in legal limbo.
By contrast, there were just over 200 were non-US Citizens in Alabama prisons in September 2010 before the law went into effect.