New program tries to ease Alabama prison population

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - By Melanie Posey

BIRMINGHAM, AL (WBRC) - Murderers, rapists, drug dealers, drug users have Alabama's prisons bursting at the foundation. The system is designed to hold 13,000 prisoners.  Currently, there are more than 26,000 prisoners.  Part of the problem is due to the large number of non-violent offenders who are sent behind bars when they violate their parole.

In October 2009, the Alabama Department of Corrections joined with the Board of Pardons and Paroles to start a program aimed at rehabilitating without adding to the overcrowding strain.

It's called the Restart Program.

"This is an intensive program that provides whatever programs that offender needs," said Robert Oakes, an assistant director of the Alabama Boardof Pardons and Paroles.  "If the offender has a drug problem, it's intensive drug treatment.  It could be educational issues, it could be job skills...all those sorts of things."

Oakes says only non-violent offenders can enter the 90-day program only if they've committed a technical violation of their parole. For example, they may have multiple positive drug screens, failed to pay restitution, or check-in with their parole officer.

It does not apply to those who've committed new offenses. And for some, officials say it can be harder than prison itself.

"It's not just a 90-day vacation at a country club. It's a really intensive program they have to work at and they'll find real quickly, it's not fun and definitely not worth doing drugs and having to do the 90 day program," Oakes contends.

While officials say the ultimate goal is public safety, they also admit there's a financial benefit as well.  With almost 300 parolees that have started the program, it has saved the state upwards of $2 million.

So is the program working? Officials say out of the 290 parolees that have started it, about 85% have completed it.  But in terms of the recidivism rate, or the number of those who stay out of prison on a long-term basis, officials say it will take 3 years to calculate such.

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