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Alabama prison overcrowding
The Associated Press 


MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- More prison beds and increased paroles would be great, but the long-term solution to reducing Alabama's swollen inmate population must include changes in sentencing laws, Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell said Friday.

Otherwise, he said, the state's inmate population will continue to grow. "As long as we have the laws that we have today, it's not going to change," Campbell said during an interview with The Associated Press.

Just over a year into office, Campbell has become well versed in the statistics that paint a staggering picture of overcrowding in Alabama's prisons. The prison population has skyrocketed from about 5,500 inmates two decades ago to more than 28,000 presently all crammed into lockups built to hold fewer than half that many people.

"We've gotten ourselves in this state in a situation that solutions to our problems are going to be more expensive than they would have been if we had attacked the problem on the front end," Campbell said. "We need new beds, we need new maximum security beds, and it's still my goal to bring new beds online."

Besides new prison space, Campbell advocates alternative sentencing such as community corrections. Such programs keep nonviolent offenders locked up in their communities, with a chance to work and pay for their incarceration and financial obligations, said state Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia.

"Our prison walls need to hold our most violent criminals," said Black, an attorney and chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. "And those that aren't violent, that would be candidates (for alternative sentences), need to be punished. And they can be more effectively punished in my opinion through alternative sentences such as community corrections." The head of a prisoner advocacy group agreed.

"There are programs that can be implemented for a fraction of the cost that are much more successful in terms of keeping people out of prison and putting them in a productive mode where they're taxpayers rather than tax-users," said Lucia Penland, director of the Alabama Prison Project.

The state Sentencing Commission has spent about four years studying Alabama's sentencing laws and how they affect the crowding in Alabama's prisons and jails. Black said five bills from the commission are pending before his committee, three of them dealing with fees and fines.

Campbell said he doesn't plan to send more prisoners to private, out-of-state prisons - an emergency step he took last summer, faced with a federal court order to reduce the number of prisoners at Tutwiler women's prison and to remove state inmates from county jails within 30 days of their sentencing.

Though he said he might have used the private prisons as part of the long-term solution if the state had been able to afford it, Campbell said the better remedy is to find space for inmates within the state. "We definitely need beds of our own," he said.

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