Report says Ala. prison population declined more than most
Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years
By Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — Alabama has reduced the number of prisoners sentenced to at least one year more sharply than most other states, according to a new report that says a national decline in prison population is is too slow to offset decades of mass incarceration.
The report is by The Sentencing Project, an organization that promotes sentencing reforms to address unjust racial disparities and alternatives to prison.
The report says the prison population has dropped 7% nationally, to 1.4 million, since a peak in 2009. The report says the population grew by 700% from 1972 to 2009.
Citing numbers for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics, the report says the number of prisoners sentenced to at least one year in Alabama dropped from 31,437 in 2012 to 23,724 at the end of 2017, a 24.5% reduction.
Only seven states – Alaska, New Jersey, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Rhode Island, and California -- showed a sharper decline since their peak prison populations, the report said.
But the report also says Alabama is among southern states with exceptionally high rates of incarceration. Others have cut their prison populations, including South Carolina, 17% since 2009; Louisiana, 16% since 2012; and Mississippi, 15% since 2008.
In Alabama, new sentencing guidelines that took effect in 2013 and criminal justice reforms approved in 2015 have reduced the prison population by sending fewer nonviolent offenders to prison.
Charlotte Morrison, a senior attorney for the Equal Justice Initiative, pointed to the EJI’s report that the Alabama prison population is again on the rise, partly because of a sharp decline in the rate of paroles.
Morrison said the more recent trend of a growing prison population carries more significance than the 2017 numbers for legislators seeking solutions to the state’s problems with violent, crowded, and understaffed prisons.
The numbers reported by the Alabama Department of Corrections in its monthly reports show a decline, but not as sharp as the Bureau of Justice Statistics numbers cited in The Sentencing Project’s report.
The ADOC had jurisdiction over 32,709 inmates in December 2012, according to the ADOC monthly report. That number dropped to 27,677 in December 2017, a 15 percent decrease.
The jurisdictional population includes all inmates assigned to ADOC custody, including those in county jails, community corrections, federal prisons, or other locations, as well as in Alabama prisons.
Nazgol Ghandnoosh, senior research analyst for the The Sentencing Project and author of the report, said she did not know why the ADOC numbers differed from the Bureau of Justice Statistics number cited in the report.
The ADOC’s in-house prison population dropped from 25,451 in January 2012 to 21,007 in December 2017, according to the ADOC’s monthly reports. That’s a reduction of 17.4%.
The most recent report available, from June of this year, shows the in-house population is 20,711. That’s still far above the prisons’ designed capacity of 12,412.
Alabama’s prisons have been overcrowded and understaffed for years.
The Department of Justice alleged in April that conditions in Alabama’s men’s prisons violated the Constitution because of the violence, rapes, weapons, drugs and other problems.
The Gov. Kay Ivey administration and legislators have said they are working with the DOJ on solutions in an effort to resolve the problems without the DOJ filing a lawsuit against the state.
A federal court is already involved with the prison problems. U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled in 2017 that mental health care failed to meet constitutional standards. The ADOC is working to find remedies that could satisfy the court. Pending issues in the same lawsuit concern quality of medical care.
The Legislature has increased funding to boost correctional officer pay and mental health care for inmates.
The Ivey administration is pursuing a plan for three new men’s prisons. Companies would design, finance, build, and maintain the prisons, and lease them to the state. Most of the existing prisons, which the ADOC said would be too costly to upgrade, would close.
©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham