‘Mass release’ of state prisoners not a given if amendment fails
by Tim Lockette
tlockette@annistonstar.com
Sep 02, 2012 | 7417 views |  0 comments | 17 17 recommendations | email to a friend | print
When Alabama voters go the polls Sept. 18, they’ll face a choice — shift $437 million from a state trust fund to patch the state budget, or brace for a “mass release” of state prison inmates.

But despite the “mass release” wording on the ballot, nothing in the proposed amendment mandates the release of prisoners. And the state’s prison system has only limited power to set inmates free, state officials said last week.

“Unfortunately, we don’t get to pick who comes into our system, and we don’t get to pick how long they stay,” said Kim Thomas, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections.

In a little more than two weeks, Alabamians will vote on a constitutional amendment that would allow the state to take $437 million from the Alabama Trust Fund over the next three years and transfer that money to the state’s General Fund. That money would shore up the state’s Medicaid system, which has seen reduced levels of federal funding.

If the amendment doesn’t pass, the hole in the budget would be corrected with across-the-board cuts. Most agencies say those cuts would shrink their state appropriations by 17 percent next year.

Part of those cuts would come in Alabama’s already-overcrowded prison system.

Those cuts are reflected in the wording of the ballots voters will see, which says that the amendment is “to provide adequate funding for the State General Fund budget, to prevent the mass release of prisoners from Alabama prisons, and to protect critical health services to Alabama children, elderly and mothers.”

Thomas said the prison system would clearly be in a bind if the amendment fails. The system is already at 190 percent of its capacity, according to Department of Corrections figures, and spends about $43 per prisoner per day. Mississippi is the only state in the Southeast that spends less.

Thomas said there are about 25,000 people “behind a fence” in the corrections system. If the amendment fails, he said, the state would have to release 9,000 of them in order to balance the books.

It’s not clear how prison officials would make that release happen.

“We would need some legislative mechanism to allow us to release them,” Thomas said.

Under current law, Thomas said, the prison system has only a few paths for early release.

One of those is parole. According to Corrections Department numbers, about 2,100 inmates were paroled in 2011, and Thomas said the system is on track to parole a similar number this year. By appointing a second parole board to process more cases, the system could double those numbers, he said.

Other available paths yield far smaller numbers of releases. Medical furloughs, for instance, are uncommon, Thomas said.

Asked whether they’d support giving Thomas more power to release inmates, the amendment’s two Senate sponsors said they didn’t think it would come to that.

“I’m one of those people who believe people are in prison for a reason,” said Sen. Trip Pittman, R-Daphne. “In the event that the amendment does not pass, I think we’d find a way to keep anyone from being released.”

Both Pittman and Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, said that if the amendment fails, the Legislature would likely reconvene in a special session before the beginning of the fiscal year Oct. 1 to find another way to fund the prison system.

Orr said that even if a special session isn’t called, legislators might pass a special supplement to the budget, taking money from other agencies to make up for the gap in prisons.

Without a special session, that wouldn’t happen until February, he said.

“If the prison system can limp along for four months, this can be solved,” Orr said.

Orr said there could be other windfalls that could soften the blow to prisons. The prison system is renegotiating its contract for health care, he said, which could save money.

Both Orr and Pittman said the “mass release” wording wasn’t their idea, but was added when the amendment went to the House.

Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, said he wasn’t sure where the “mass release” wording got its start.

“I’m not exactly sure who is the author of that,” said Clouse, who handled the bill in the House.

Clouse said legislators wanted the ballot wording to reflect the real impact of cuts to the General Fund budget.

“We want people to know that this is the General Fund, which handles prisons, public health and agriculture and industries,” Clouse said.

Clouse said the “mass release” wording makes sense given the current state of funding for prisons.

Pittman said the real issue at hand is the state’s growing commitment of funds to Medicaid, which is rising partly because of the aging population, but mostly because of declining federal support.

He said that, whether the amendment passes or not, state leaders will still have to sit down and come up with a way to bring Medicaid’s costs under control. He said the state needs to look at Medicaid co-pays and other ways to increase the client’s contribution to the system.

“They need to have some skin in the game,” he said.

Assistant Metro Editor Tim Lockette: 256-235-3560. On Twitter: @TLockette_Star.
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