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Looming deadline on inmate housing law raising concerns

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Starting Jan. 1, a new law says some state inmates can be housed at county jails that volunteer to take them, rather than in other county jails that don’t want them.

But so far, the jails willing to take the inmates haven’t been selected, concerning some county and state leaders about what will happen to the transfers commonly referred to as “dunks.”

“I don’t know what’s going to happen on Jan. 1,” Association of County Commissions of Alabama Director Sonny Brasfield told Alabama Daily News. “The things that were supposed to happen by Jan. 1 haven’t happened.”

The Alabama Department of Corrections is the lead agency finding the willing jails and said it is working to meet the New Year’s Day deadline.

“Currently, we are in what we believe to be the final stages of completing the agreement that will allow us to begin soliciting applications from counties,” Kristi Simpson, ADOC’s interim department spokesperson, said Wednesday in an email. “Assuming all parties involved continue the current trajectory, the department believes we will hit our collective Jan. 1, 2021, target date.”

That the application process hasn’t begun with just more than two weeks left in the year is a concern to Brasfield.

“The DOC has done no inspections of any of the county jails yet but quite honestly, I’m not so sure we are going to have ‘dunks’ anymore beginning Jan. 1. As of today, not only do we not have any consenting county jails, we don’t have an application form for a jail to consent if they even wanted to.”

The law approved this spring said that people who had to return to ADOC custody for 45-day stays because of technical parole violations, such as missed meetings with their parole officers or failed drug tests, would serve that time at a county jail that volunteered to house them for a fee. The law set up an application process for willing county jails, to be set up by the Alabama Department of Corrections in consultation with the Alabama Sheriffs’ Association and the Association of County Commissions of Alabama.

The association of counties has complained for several years that the state’s 2015 “dips and dunks” law put a financial burden on local jails. “Dips” are first-time parole violators with technical offenses and have to serve two or three days in a local jail. After a few dips, they become “dunks” and were supposed to serve 45 days in an ADOC prison. But county officials have complained that’s not how it’s worked and the inmates end up staying in local jails, taking up space and financial resources.

So, this year Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, and Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Range, brought a bill to change the law and let a few jails volunteer to house the 45-day inmates. Albritton on Wednesday said he doesn’t know what will happen to the “dunks” come Jan. 1 and that Brasfield has valid concerns.

“This could be a major fiasco,” Albritton said.

As of September, 3,336 ADOC inmates were housed in county jails, according to the department’s monthly report. About half of them were on their way to state prison.

In Elmore County, the jail on Wednesday held 58 state inmates, Sheriff Bill Franklin said. He’d prefer not to house any state inmates. 

“That puts me about 30-35 over what I’d normally have,” Franklin said. “The long story short is, we’ve got 58 guys that belong to the state of Alabama.” 

Franklin wasn’t immediately sure how many of those inmates were “dunks” but said all of them take up valuable space and resources in his county jail. He said he knows the state has crowding problems, but those shouldn’t be put on county jails.

“The (local  jails) are the ones that are primarily biting the bullet because of the state’s woes,” he said. “We’re sitting here holding the bucket.”

The ACCA earlier this fall requested $10 million in backpay to local jails for housing an influx of state inmates during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have 58 guys that aren’t ours,” Franklin said. “And but for those 58, I would not endure a lot of the complaints we get about overcrowding and things of that nature.” 

Brasfield said he and incoming ADOC Commissioner John Hamm planned to meet to lay out a plan for where we need to go but jail selection could take months, he said. He noted that Hamm is a former county sheriff with a good relationship with the association.

“But right now I am very concerned about what’s going to happen on Jan. 1,” Brasfield said.

Proposed law change coming

Besides designated jails, the law allows dunks to be held at a designated residential Bureau of Pardons and Parole facility. But right now, there’s no such place.

The bureau is in the process of purchasing a long-vacant 730-bed private prison in Perry County.

The sale for $15 million should be complete next month, bureau director Cam Ward told Alabama Daily News. The site needs about $4 million to $4.5 million in upgrades, he said.

He’s proposed holding dunks there and is now suggesting a change to the dunk law in 2022.

Currently, a person’s second technical parole violation means they have to serve 45 days. Most of those violations related to substance abuse, such as failed drug tests, Ward said.

Instead of 45 days in jail, Ward is suggesting 90 days at BPP’s new Perry County facility or LifeTech Center in Thomasville.

“Ninety days would allow for a drug treatment program,” Ward said.

Albritton has talked to Ward about a potential law change.

“Rather than tying it to a certain number of days, I’m in favor of requiring they complete some type of program (prior to release),” Albritton said.

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