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Alabama prisoners

Despite reform bill, increase in paroles could be years away

$11 million hiring push has yielded six jobs so far

MONTGOMERY — Alabama's sweeping prison reform law goes into effect Jan. 30, but an increase in the number of people released on parole — a key goal of the bill — may still be far away.

"It'll be years, years," said Robert Longshore, a member of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

State lawmakers passed a wide-ranging prison reform bill last year designed to reduce the population in the state's prisons, where around 25,000 inmates now live in decades-old buildings meant for about 13,000. Lawmakers feared a federal takeover — California's prisons were less crowded when federal courts intervened — but had neither the money nor the time to build new prisons ease overcrowding.

Instead, they created a new type of felony, Class D, that allowed shorter sentences for small-time burglars and drug offenders. They approved small-scale construction projects designed to make better use of the buildings they already have.

And they proposed major changes at the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. Alabama's reluctance to release inmates on parole, state-hired researchers found, played a big part in the state's failure to reduce its prison population despite past efforts at sentencing reform.

The 2015 prison reform bill gave the parole board an $11 million increase, with the goal of adding more than 100 new parole officers to its force of about 260 officers statewide. The bill required the parole board to create a set of research-based guidelines for releasing inmates, based on their risk of reoffending, and it required them to actually notify inmates of the reasons their parole is denied.

All those changes were expected to lead to a rise in the number of parolees. But a month from the law's implementation date, little has changed.

The parole board is actively recruiting new parole officers. But out of 515 potential candidates sought out  by the board, only 24 responded and only 15 passed the physical.

"With retirements, we've seen a net gain of six," Longshore said, far short of the 100 officers they hoped to hire under the new law.

Without those new officers in place, Longshore said, the parole board isn't likely to release any more inmates than before.

"Until there's better supervision available, I don't see us being any more willing to release these people into the general public," Longshore said.

In a Tuesday meeting, the Legislature's Prison Reform Task Force got a close look at other post-release inmate needs that reform advocates say are unmet.

Last month the parole board released its new parole guidelines, set to go into effect Jan. 30, for public comment. The release, essentially a one-page checklist, hasn't generated any comments so far, parole board staff said.

The checklist is based in part on the Ohio Risk Assessment System, a set of questions based on interviews with more than 1,800 inmates in Ohio prisons and jails. The system assigns a score based on a number of factors that predict an inmate's risk of reoffending. Factors such as pride in past criminal behavior, unemployment at the time of arrest, being single or having quit a job in the past are all considered risk factors.

Come Jan. 30, each inmate will be assigned a score based on the Ohio assessment and other factors such as past infractions in prison. But the form also declares that the assessment is still in "Phase I" and the scores won't actually affect an inmate's release from prison.

"It's very subtle," Longshore said when asked what effect the new assessment would actually have on an inmate's release. He said the board still needs the right to override the checklist, because of the potential a dangerous offender could slip through the cracks.

The author of the prison reform bill, Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he understands the board's caution. He said the new assessment is still better than what parole board members were doing in the past.

"They were basically just re-sentencing the inmate based on the severity of their past offense," Ward said.

Ward said that even the "Phase I" system would give the state data on paroles to let them know more about the decisions rendered by the board. And information about the assessment will also go to the inmate. Alabama doesn't allow inmates to attend their own parole hearings, and in the past inmates have relied on friends or family to tell them the reasons their parole was denied.

The state granted parole to 2,236 inmates in 2015, one fewer than in 2014, according to an annual report issued last week. Longshore said the support system for released inmates will have to improve before the parole board is comfortable releasing more.

In a Tuesday meeting, members of the Legislature's Prison Reform Task Force heard from mental health professionals who told them post-release care for mentally ill inmates was sorely lacking in the state.

"There are now more people with serious mental illness being served in prisons and jails than in state hospitals," University of Alabama psychiatry professor Jacqueline Feldman told the task force.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.