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AL prisoner overpopulation costs taxpayers millions

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More than 25,000 men and woman are currently locked up in Alabama state prisons. (Source: WAFF) More than 25,000 men and woman are currently locked up in Alabama state prisons. (Source: WAFF)

Alabama's prison population has nearly double the capacity the state owned and taxpayer funded facilities are designed for.

According to an Alabama Department of Corrections report, the state is at 188% capacity. That population is draining tens of millions of dollars from other services like education and roads.

We asked lawmakers if was time to change sentencing rules for non-violent offenders, and investigated how others are cutting costs and inmate populations while Alabama's continues to grow. 

More than 25,000 men and woman are currently locked up in Alabama state prisons. And according to an Alabama DOC spokesperson, that prison population costs the state more than $1 million a day, and most of those funds are provided by you, the taxpayer.

Last year, the DOC spent $421 million. Of that, more than $365 million came from taxpayers' pockets. That's 87% of the DOC's total budget.

"We rank in the top 10 of all states in regard to incarceration," said Dr. Quanda Stevenson.

Stevenson is a criminal justice expert at Athens State University. She believes if something isn't done to bring those incarceration levels down, the state is in for a financial mess.

"It's causing a drainage on [state] funds," said Stevenson. 

And because Alabama law requires a balanced budget, that money will have to come from other programs.

Other states are also feeling that pinch and some are making radical changes to avoid a financial meltdown.

According to a Pew Research Center report, since 2012, nearly half the states have eased drug laws. The theory is if you keep non-violent offenders out of county jails and state prisons you lessen the burden on the tax payer. However, during that same time period Alabama and two other states toughened their drug laws. Several states have also gone both ways.

"You have people on drug offenses doing life without parole that are in terrible health and the state of Alabama is paying for that," said attorney Mark McDaniel. "If you have someone in jail, you're paying for their healthcare."

The Alabama DOC spent more than $100 million, most of it taxpayer funded, on healthcare and other medical services for prisoners. McDaniel said Madison County taxpayers spent millions on county prisoners during that same time period.

It's also the reason why the Madison County Commission appointed McDaniel last February to take a look at the county jail's population, work with the District Attorney's office, and identify prisoners that don't need to wait in jail and can go into a diversion program. 

"Most of the time they are people with no prior criminal record and minor offenses," said McDaniel. "There's no use in keeping those people in jail for long periods of time and for the tax payers to have to pay for that."

We brought Madison County's idea and Pew Research Center's report to state representative Mike Ball. 

"Every case is different," said Ball. 

The state representative spent years working in law enforcement before running for office. He said there's a lot of talk going on about what to do with the DOC's growing budget and population - but not a lot of action.

"There's just not an easy answer," said Ball.

McDaniel and Stevenson say the solution is there, but politicians aren't likely to go for it.

"If you run a campaign and that campaign is ‘I'm going to find out a way to release criminals,' you're probably not going to win," said McDaniel

"We just had an election. Everyone's platform mostly is... 'I'm going to fight crime; I'm going to get tough on crime,'" said Stevenson.

And the two warn if no action is taken, money that could go towards other services could head to prisoners behind bars.

"Do the people, do the taxpayers, do you want to spend your money on educating your children, on NASA, on defense issues, on roads, on recruiting jobs, or do you want to incarcerate people? That's the issue," said McDaniel.

Since Madison County started their new diversion program 18 months ago, they've reduced their county inmate population from around 1,100 to roughly 850. That reduction has saved Madison County taxpayers millions of dollars. 

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