Early prisoner release bill signed into law

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, October 2, 2001

Staff Writer

A bill that calls for the early release of inmates recently signed into law by Alabama’s governor is not getting positive marks from law enforcement officials.

Gov. Don Siegelman has signed into law a bill that could mean the early release of inmates serving life or life without parole sentences. However, Siegelman is asking the Department of Corrections to only consider release of nonviolent offenders.

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Siegelman has also ordered a study regarding implementation of the law and a report be made to Attorney General Bill Pryor and the Alabama Sentencing Commission by June 1, 2002.

Prison officials are not supposed to decide who is released early until the study is complete.

Both Pike County Sheriff Russell Thomas and Troy Police Chief Anthony Everage find the governor’s action a bit disturbing because it is so-called "nonviolent" offenders who cause law enforcement agencies the most trouble.

"It’s hard for people in Montgomery to look at a piece of paper and say, ‘he’s not a threat to society.’ If he wasn’t a threat to society, he wouldn’t be in prison," Thomas said.

Both Thomas and Everage said their officers find it hard enough to put offenders behind bars and letting them out early is not going to help matters.

"Personally, I’m not in favor of early release," Thomas said. "Whatever sentence they receive is the sentence they need to serve. I don’t think the answer is early release."

"Nonviolent offender" often refers to those who commit property crimes, such as burglary, or forgery.

"The ones who cause us the most problems are the property offenders," Thomas said.

Everage agrees and said the governor’s action is not going to have a positive impact on local law enforcement.

"We’re going to deal with them again," Everage said of those who are likely to be released early. "It takes so long to get them to prison. This isn’t going to help deter them.

"If they get out and walk the straight and narrow, that’s great. If not, we’re going to work to send them back."

Just six months ago, Thomas witnessed the results of an early release.

After three years in prison, an individual was released and was found to be burglarizing homes again.

"How can you say early release is the answer?" Thomas questioned.

He said the prison population continues to increase even with the prisons being at capacity and that is not bound to change.

Statistics indicate the prison population increases by about 1,200 each year. Between 1995 and 2000, the state prison population rose approximately 28 percent.

"The answer is not building a $50 million prison for 900 to 1,000 inmates," Thomas said. "There are county jails that have that many."

His thoughts are to add on to the existing facilities since the infrastructure and security measures are already in place at the five state prisons. The labor is there, so the cost would be less than building a whole new prison, Thomas said.

"As a taxpayer, I don’t want to see more prisons," Thomas said.

But, whatever decision is made, Thomas and Everage will abide.

Everage said the only answer is stopping it before it starts.

"Something has got to be done to deter crime," Everage said.

"The bottom line is money ­ how much the citizens of Alabama want to pay. How much does society want to pay to keep them in jail? How much do we want to pay to send them back?"