Sunday, March 20, 2005

Parole for a parole board

Alabama's prisons are dangerously overcrowded, as the ongoing sagas of Donaldson Correctional Facility and Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women illustrate. The state's prison rolls were growing so quickly a few years ago that Gov. Bob Riley added a second parole board in 2003 to try to ease the burden. The temporary board was to free about 5,000 nonviolent inmates before it expired in 2006.

So here's the question: With the number of state prisoners slowly rising and with hundreds of nonviolent offenders still overdue for a parole hearing, why are both Riley and Attorney General Troy King supporting a bill to eliminate the second parole board a year early? It can't be that "[i]ts work appears to be done," as a Riley spokesman said, because it clearly isn't. A spokeswoman for the permanent board suggested that the temporary board's workload is unnecessarily duplicative, but the newest member of the permanent board told The Birmingham News that the temporary board has "plenty of work" available.

The opposition to the panel appears, not surprisingly, to relate to Montgomery's internecine turf wars. Many permanent board members dislike the temporary board because it horns in on their previously exclusive action. King, on the other hand, dislikes the temporary board because it doesn't always follow his office's parole recommendations.

Alabama prisons remain packed to the gills with more than twice as many inmates as the system was built to accommodate. Parole hearings remain backlogged for about 600 nonviolent inmates. A criminologist who has studied the state's prisons has estimated that up to 5,000 more nonviolent inmates could be paroled safely. If our public officials would hurry up and finish the scratching-and-clawing phase of their power struggle, I'd like to call their attention to a few of those things.

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