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Two local judges say two recent bills would reduce prison population

Woodruff, Seay

Talladega County Presiding Circuit Judge Chad Woodruff, left, and St. Clair County Presiding Circuit Judge Phillip Seay say that accountability courts and community corrections can allow non-violent offenders to stay out of jail.

Local judges are reacting to two recent bills in the Alabama House of Representatives that would set up a statewide commission to oversee accountability courts and require each county to have a community corrections program.

The first bill, sponsored by Representative Jim Hill (R-Moody), would set up an Accountability Court Commission. Hill said this commission is to “try to create some uniformity in what they do and at the same time establish best practices for these courts.”

He said while the bill itself would not require a county to operate an accountability court, but instead set up a statewide structure for them. Accountability courts are specialized court programs such as drug court, mental health court, and veterans court that incorporates mental health professionals, substance abuse professionals, local social programs, and intensive judicial monitoring to deal with offenders in a setting other than prison.

St. Clair County Presiding Circuit Judge Phillip Seay said about 55 such courts operate in the state of Alabama in each of the state’s circuits except Talladega. He said that for example some circuits have these courts meet once a month while St. Clair County has them meet once a week.

Talladega County Presiding Circuit Judge Chad Woodruff said Talladega County is the only county in Alabama not to have an accountability court system.

“Talladega stands alone and that's not something I am proud of,” Woodruff said, adding that he had experience in accountability courts while a practicing attorney.

The second bill would mandate each county in the state to have a community corrections program which is an alternative sentencing program that allows non violent offenders to stay in their community while receiving treatment and being heavily monitored by the Department of Corrections. Seay said those in community corrections are required to perform community service and pay for their treatment. He refers to the two programs as first cousins as they both include heavy drug testing.

Seay said the bills will allow the state to reduce prison population while allowing non-violent offenders to continue contributing to society. .

“That's the focus — to reduce population where it can be and solve the problem if it can be and allow these people to continue to work, pay taxes, pay child support and all those other good things and us spend another $3 billion on a prison that I understand is being considered in Montgomery right now,” Seay said.

Seay said St. Clair’s accountability court program has had 239 graduates since 2007. He said 96 percent of those graduates have not reoffended.

Woodruff said accountability courts and community corrections are tough on crime as they allow for room in prisons for more serious offenders.

“For every person that Phill Seay, Bill Bostick, Brian Howell or any other judge in our nearby circuits for every person they put in prison somebody has to come out,” he said.

Woodruff said when he sentences a violent offender to a several year sentence someone must be paroled to make room for that person. He said prisons must be run efficiently so that sentences mean something. He said accountability courts, which are often called diversion programs, allow for a more precise monitoring of prison population.

“If you are able to punish people locally in some other means other than a $30,000 annual three beds and a cot, cause that's potentially where the numbers are, then there's an obligation you have to explore those opportunities,” Woodruff said.

He said it is not only tough on crime but a smarter way of dealing with the offenders that keeps people that should be in prison while diverting those that may not go with these resources in place.

Woodruff said that Talladega County District Attorney Steve Giddens has been opposed to drug courts and pretrial diversion programs in the past.

“I have a very positive personal and professional relationship with the D.A., as it should be,” Woodruff said. “My intent, my goal is to work through by supporting these bills, which the statistics prove are successful. I think we can get there if we all work together.”

Giddens said Friday that he had only become aware of the bills earlier in the day, during a discussion with a state legislator. He declined to comment before making himself more familiar with the particulars.

Seay said he understands funding is an issue of concern around the state for both, but his own program is largely self funded.

He said when the St. Clair County Community Corrections program was started, the circuit was given a grant of $200,000.

“Today that account in community corrections has $167,000,” Seay said. “So we’re self funded less the $33,000 we spent over the last 15 years.”

He said funds are driven by fees from those taking part in the program that can afford it.

While funding is largely county based, both judges expect that available grant money will increase if the bill passes.

“I recognize it's not a free program.” Woodruff said, “but at the end of the day the cost savings to Joe Taxpayer is overwhelming when you take a look at an incarcerated DOC inmate versus an inmate that would serve a sentence, or portion of a sentence or an attempted probation here locally.”

Woodruff said community corrections inmates can be used for local trash pick up and other community service jobs, as both drug courts and community corrections in St. Clair County have community service requirements.

Both judges also highlight the use of accountability courts for veteran’s court. The program is a form of drug court for veterans. Seay said it allows for veterans to be linked up with certain resources to help them get back on track after being charged with drug related offences.

“We owe it to those guys,” Seay said adding that many have issues related to their service overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan.

Woodruff said he has three veterans from Talladega County going through St. Clair’s veteran’s court at this time because of the lack of a court in Talladega County. All three are expected to complete the program and could graduate as early as April. Seay said they had all been exemplary participants in the program.

Daily Home Staff Writer Chris Norwood also contributed to this story.

Taylor Mitchell, Daily Home reporter covering Pell City.