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State’s jail backlog creeps up again

MONTGOMERY — The number of state inmates being held in county jails longer than a court-approved 30-day limit has been creeping higher two years after a backlog was eliminated, but county officials say they aren’t concerned yet.

A total of 64 state inmates were on the list in November and the number climbed to 76 last week before settling back to 65 on Tuesday, corrections spokesman Brian Corbett said.

He said the number of new inmates is growing, but the state is not building new prisons.

“So space, in a nutshell, is the problem and always has been the problem,” he said.

The backlog has indeed been a problem for years and once ballooned to as many as 2,800. Its most recent high was 1,600 in 2003, and it was 800 in March 2006, when new prisons Commissioner Richard Allen began reducing it to zero.

Sonny Brasfield, assistant executive director for the Alabama Association of County Commissions, said the department deserves a bit of leeway.

“One of the things we’ve said all along is we understand that the department will face challenges from time to time that make it impossible to keep the number at zero,” Brasfield said. “It’s the holidays and we understand that that makes some things difficult.”

The department has struggled with limited quarters for decades and was operating at 188 percent capacity in November, with 25,281 inmates squeezed into a system designed to hold 13,403.

The Alabama Association of County Commissions first sued the corrections department over the backlog in 1992. Allen inherited a contempt charge over the backlog when he took over in 2006.

He faced possible jail time for failing to move all state prisoners from county jails within the time limit stipulated in a 1994 court decree. But Allen managed to beat a judge’s deadline by about a week in August 2006, bringing it down to zero in about six months.

Speeding up the parole process helped clear out prisoners along with the creation of about 850 new beds by converting minimum-security work centers to house higher-security inmates and transferring some out-of-state. A new therapeutic center and programs to place inmates in community settings and aid their return to society have also helped.

Brasfield said no particular number would trigger renewed action from the association, but he said they would be concerned if increases started to be a monthly trend.

“The department is supposed to keep the number at zero, but we also recognize that in the real world, prisoners are ticking to their 30th day every day,” he said.

Still, Brasfield said the association will be keeping a close eye on the situation — particularly if the Legislature reduces funding in the 2009 session and the temptation arises to balance things by “shifting the burden to the local taxpayers.”