In an attempt to meet Medicaid’s budget demands, the Senate approved a General Fund budget which would take $184 million from state prisons. Replacing the Department of Corrections’ missing $184 million would depend on Alabama voters approving a constitutional amendment allowing the DOC to draw the money from the Alabama Trust Fund, a reserve collected from oil and gas royalties.
Brian Corbett, who handles media relations for the Department of Corrections, said earlier this year the agency prepared a budget with a 25 percent cut in funding from the state. It projected closing five facilities, laying off 1,600 and releasing 13,000 inmates.
That was with a 25 percent cut. The $184 million reduction is closer to a 50 percent cut.
With that money, Corbett said, the agency could maintain a prison population of about 9,000 inmates, meaning 18,000 would have to be released from state prisons.
“Of those 18,000 many have been convicted of violent offenses, have had history of repeated offenses and have displayed poor institutional adjustment,” Corbett said.
The Department of Corrections budget isn’t tied in with county jails in the state, but Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said it’s not hard to see how cuts to state prison budgets would create problems for everyone.
“The prison policy is to take inmates within 30 days of conviction,” Amerson said. “I would anticipate there would be longer delays.”
That would be expected to shake up a relatively stable population period the Calhoun County Jail has seen recently. When Amerson took over the job in 1995, the facility had an inmate population of 180; six months ago, the population was close to 500, or almost 100 more people than beds in the jail.
“Every bed we have is concrete or steel,” Amerson said. “The reality is when the population is up, mattresses are on the floor.”
According to Amerson, the jail population Friday was 380, which has been about average for the last four months. While the Sheriff’s Office is trying to analyze why things have been so stable, the sheriff himself is at a loss for an explanation.
If the Department of Corrections cuts stand, Corbett said, within a few months county jails would see a significant backup of inmates flooding through their doors.
“We’re very hopeful we can work with our legislators to resolve these budget issues,” Corbett said. “This is an undisputedly essential service, and that is public safety.”
Of course, the problem of jail overpopulation isn’t new. Jacksonville State University criminal justice professor Ron Mellen said prison populations began soaring in the 1970s, when the nation took up a “nothing works” mentality to rehabilitation and counseling programs. The answer to every crime was to simply lock up the criminal and throw away the key.
“The general idea of a prison was you sent someone there who was a mass murderer or truly disturbed,” Mellen said. “But the 1970s through the 1980s you saw a significant increase in punishment for drug offenders.”
The United States has by far the highest number of incarcerated people by country in the world, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. Out of every 100,000 people in the country, 504 are incarcerated in state or federal prisons. In Alabama, the number is more than 600.
The irony, Amerson said, is that the harsher punishment for criminals means they’re getting out sooner thanks to overpopulation.
“You can ask any law enforcement officer and the answer is pretty universal,” Amerson said. “It’s frustrating to catch the same people over and over again.”
Not housing the offender, Amerson said, isn’t saving money. For example, Amerson said, if a house burglar is released from jail early and hits 40 homes in a two-month period, even when he gets caught, most of those crimes won’t be traced back to him. Property he stole won’t be recovered, he drives up the cost of insurance for homeowner and law enforcement incurs a cost to keep extra watch over neighborhoods he’s burglarizing; there’s also the psychological toll the burglar takes on the people whose safety he threatened, Amerson said.
“The state tells you how expensive it is to house a prisoner and they’re right — it costs a lot,” he said. “But the cost of crime is much higher.”
Mellen, who worked with the Department of Corrections in Arkansas for six years, and Amerson both said there is a solution to the problem, a solution that starts with more rehabilitation programs.
“Part of it is giving them treatment,” Mellen said. “Then it’s giving them an environment for hope.”
Star staff writer Brian Anderson: 256-235-3546. On Twitter @BAnderson_Star.