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Counties want change to 2015 state prison reform they says costs jails money, space

By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — While Alabama’s 2020 legislative session will include prison-sentencing reform efforts, county officials want a change to a 2015 law that they say is putting too many state inmates in their jails and costing them money.

The 2015 reform meant to ease state prison crowding and save money allowed for “dips” and “dunks” in jail and prison for Alabama Department of Corrections’ probation and parole violators with technical violations such as missed payments on court fees or missed meetings with parole officers.

“There’s a lag in the transportation from the jails to ADOC,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News recently. “The counties are getting stuck with an unfunded mandate.

“We’ve got to make some changes there. We do need to fix that for (counties).” 

Ward’s the Senate’s lead lawmaker on prison reform and sponsored the 2015 bill. Dips are two to three days in a county jails ordered by probation officers. They’re at capped at 18 days per inmate and jails can consent to housing them. Dunks are 45-day stays that are supposed to happen in ADOC facilities after someone has been “dipped” multiple times. Three “dunks” could result in probation being revoked and the offender being sentenced to complete their sentence behind bars.

The dips are working as intended, Ward said. But the dunks are a problem and inmates are spending too much time in county jails.

From 2014 to 2018, counties’ jail operations and law enforcement costs increased more than $64 million, said Sonny Brasfield, executive director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

“I’m not attributing all of that to the prison reforms of 2015, but it is part of it,” Brasfield said.

The association’s position is that the dunks aren’t working.

“Sometimes, they sit in jails for months,” he said. “It’s not a deterrent to send them back to ADOC if they don’t get sent back to ADOC.”

The ADOC doesn’t track dips because they’re not housed in state facilities, a spokeswoman said. But in August, there were 558 total ADOC inmates in county jails waiting to go to state prisons. In August 2015, there were 287. 

In fiscal 2018, there were 2,780 parole and probation dunks in ADOC custody, according to records.

Lauderdale County Sheriff Rick Singleton said the dips and dunks aren’t impacting his jail much, but other parts of the 2015 reform are adding to his inmate population, including the creation of a Class D felony that didn’t require prison time.

“There are some of them that would have gone to prison, now they’re doing their time in county jails,” Singleton. His jail population has grown by more than 100 inmates since he took office in 2015. The county recently opened a new 50-bed dorm, but more space is needed.

“I had 101 people sleeping on the floor last night, Singleton said Monday. “The reforms have shifted the problems to the county level.” 

Brasfield said counties are concerned about any other reforms that could put inmates in county jails.

“We don’t want to have to go in every year and fight for General Fund appropriations,” he said. “We want the state to take care of its inmates.”

Reducing recidivism

The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy met recently to discuss ways to keep people from returning to prison and alternatives to prison sentences. Alabama’s current rate for recidivism, inmates who returns to custody within three years of release, is 31% for men and 21% for women, according to ADOC. 

Morgan County District Attorney Scott Anderson told the study group that his county’s pre-trial diversion program for first-time offenders, in which an offender’s charges can be dropped if they complete the program, has a recidivism rate of 11%.

Anderson told ADN the program would “absolutely” benefit from having state dollars, saying that it would allow him to hire more employees.. 

Right now, Anderson said they only have five reporting days a month where defendants provide updates on their progress, make a restitution payment and give the DA evidence that they are complying with the program. 

“We have to squeeze a lot of folks into five days,” Anderson said. 

Anderson said the program isn’t state-funded, but supported by payments made by the defendants, including an administration fee of $400 and a monthly monitoring fee of $50. If defendants prove they are indigent, they won’t have to pay or they can make the payments in installments, Anderson said.

The average amount of time a defendant stays in the program can range from 12 to 24 months, Anderson said, but most are done in 18 months. 

Morgan County’s program is not for drug offenders, they’re referred to drug court.

There are currently 55 drug courts operating for 66 counties. St. Clair County Circuit Judge Phil Seay said the adult drug court in that county has seen great success since it began in 2009 with 188 graduates and only 10 having reoffended. 

“Nationally, all the data points to alternative courts having a substantially less recidivism rate as compared to those who did not go through a diversion program or an alternative court,” Seay said. 

Seay said that having more uniformity and access across the state for drug courts would make the programs more beneficial for the state. 

Ward also pointed out that more economically depressed counties may not have the resources to support such a program and that a statewide funding strategy could be valuable.

Community corrections programs are another alternative that Seay said could help reduce the state’s prison population and reduce repeat offenses. Those programs are ADOC sentences and are highly supervised programs that put the offenders directly into the communities where they work and pay taxes and restitution fees. 

Another need is for more mental health courts for non-violent offenders with a history of mental illness. There are now 11 adult mental health courts in nine counties that allow offenders to avoid jail time by participating in structured treatment.

Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Teresa Pulliam said the closure of mental health hospitals and an overall lack of resources is overloading courts.

“We have backlogs now of about eight months in Jefferson County before someone can even be seen to be evaluated in the department of mental health,” Pulliam said during the meeting.  

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said that the mental health system in Alabama is so broken that those convicted are competing for the same mental health care as private citizens.

“How ineffective of a system do you have when both the civilian and criminal side can’t get help?” England said.

The Department of Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said 21 counties are participating in the national “Stepping Up Initiative” to reduce the number of people with mental illness in jails. The program requires counties to develop a referral system with local jails and emergency rooms and provide case management for those referred to the system. 

Beshear said that some of the barriers the program faces are the low staff levels in county jails, inconsistent systems for data management and space and security issues for conducting assessments and screenings. 

Beshear told ADN that having more mental health courts would significantly help the state in stopping mentally ill individuals from being put in jail. 

“We need to have more community beds,” Beshear said. “We don’t necessarily need to open up a big hospital where people are warehoused, what we want, and what we are in the process of doing, as quickly as our funds will allow us, is to establish community-based beds.”

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