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January 4, 2012

Local officials cautious of potential prison release plan

State trying to avoid mass release of inmates

CULLMAN — With prisons statewide growing more and more crowded, federal and state officials are considering numerous options to address the issue — including a potential mass release of inmates.

Chief Deputy Max Bartlett, with the Cullman County Sheriff’s Office, said the issue is one to watch closely, though he doesn’t anticipate any mass releases from the department’s detention center anytime soon.

“Unless there is a court ordered mandate, I don’t look for us to release any from our facility,” he said. “We’d have to follow a judge’s order if that came, but we usually stay within our set guidelines for capacity. Unless there is a mandate telling us otherwise, we’re going to keep holding what we have done. But, I do know some other agencies are looking at that due to financial situations.”

Cullman’s detention center is holding nearly 270 inmates now, leaving some wiggle room between the current maximum capacity of 320 inmates, which could even increase by a few dozen with additional beds.

With state prisons housing almost double the number of inmates they were designed for, some at the state level are worried federal courts will free inmates to reduce the overcrowding.

Prison Commissioner Kim Thomas told the Associated Press that 2012 will be a challenging year for the Department of Corrections. But Thomas says he and other officials are working to avoid any order for a mass release of inmates to reduce overcrowding.

Thomas says the department will announce a plan soon to reduce crowding in state prisons.

The U.S. Supreme Court in May ordered California to reduce 30,000 inmates from its overcrowded prison system.

Bartlett noted that early releases have been ongoing for some time, via parole, but he doesn’t expect an increase in the area.

“We do get a vast array of early releases all the time, and the state has been releasing prisoners on a regular basis with parole and things like that,” he said.

Though a plan has not been announced by state officials, Bartlett said any major release would likely focus on lower-level offenders, which could create headaches for law enforcement across the state.

“If it’s something at the state level, it’d probably be things like property crimes, which could hit locally,” he said. “Say, someone is released early for burglary, and they return to their own county. If history repeats itself, we could be dealing with that same person again.”

Depending on how the decision is made, Cullman County Sheriff Mike Rainey said it could hint at more fundamental problems within the system.

“There need to be consequences for people’s actions, and when there are no consequences, people don’t learn, because the prison system was designed for a purpose,” he said. “But, the public can rest assured, that’s up to the corrections division and what the judge’s do with them, but we’ll continue to do our job, which is to arrest people who break the law. We’ll continue to do our part.”

A message left seeking comment from the Cullman County District Attorney’s office was not returned by deadline of this article, as officials were reportedly in court for much of the day.

* Trent Moore can be reached by e-mail at trentm@cullmantimes.com, or by telephone at 734-2131, ext. 220.

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