Ala. counties say prison reforms created financial burdens

Laws passed to reduce prison crowding has burdened counties to house inmates without any funding to cover the cost


Mike Cason
AL.com

Alabama’s criminal justice reform law passed in 2015 to reduce crowding in state prisons has placed new burdens on counties to house inmates in jails without any new funding to compensate, the Association of County Commissions of Alabama said in a report released last week.

The law set up new ways to sanction offenders who violate the terms of their probation or parole. It authorized up to six different three-day stays in county jails for offenders who commit technical violations, a practice known as “dips.” And it said offenders who repeatedly commit technical violations can be held in county jails while awaiting transfers to state custody for 45-day stays, known as “dunks.”

According to a new report, the cost of operating Ala. county jails rose more than twice as much as inflation between 2015 and 2018. (Photo/ Rivers A. Langley/Wikimedia Commons)
According to a new report, the cost of operating Ala. county jails rose more than twice as much as inflation between 2015 and 2018. (Photo/ Rivers A. Langley/Wikimedia Commons)

According to the ACCA, at least 4,725 people were held in county jails in fiscal year 2017 for dips or dunks. In fiscal year 2018, that number rose to 5,527.

This enormous influx of inmates otherwise held in state custody — with no additional funding for the corresponding costs — has provided relief to the state prison system at the expense of the 67 county governments,” the report says.

Officials have credited the 2015 reforms with helping to reduce the prison population, although the number of inmates has climbed in recent months because fewer inmates are being granted parole.

The ACCA report comes as state officials consider more changes to criminal justice policies. Violence, crowding, and under-staffing have plagued Alabama prisons to the extent that the U.S. Department of Justice alleged in April that conditions in men’s prisons violate the Constitution. Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a study group to make recommendations to the Legislature.

The ACCA passed a resolution urging lawmakers to re-examine the 2015 reforms before passing new ones.

The report says the number of state inmates held in county jails longer than a 30-day limit established by the Alabama Supreme Court reached more than 140 a week this year, adding to the costs and pressure on county jails. The report says the cost of operating jails rose 14.2% between 2014 and 2018, more than twice as much as inflation.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who sponsored the 2015 criminal justice reform law, said today he would consider supporting changes to the policies on handling parole technical violators, acknowledging that they have placed a burden on counties.

On the other hand, Ward said he hears from county sheriffs who want tougher sentencing laws to keep repeat offenders off the streets. Ward said he believes counties should bear part of the burden of any such changes that keep more people locked up.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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