Alabama lawmakers have approved a program that would allow some state inmates to receive up to a year off their sentence through vocational or other training, although most prisoners are not allowed to. participate.
It is estimated that 2,500 inmates of the state prison population of approximately 20,000 will be eligible to participate in the new program called the Alabama Education Incentive Time Act. It will allow inmates to earn up to 12 months of their sentence by completing vocational training, apprenticeship or other educational programs.
Supporters acknowledged that a relatively small number of inmates would qualify for the program, but called it a starting point the state could build on in the future.
Senator Clyde Chambliss, who sponsored the legislation, said research shows that inmates who complete quality education programs are much less likely to return to prison.
“If they can get a job when they come out, they have a fighting chance,” said Chambliss, R-Prattville.
However, the law as approved by lawmakers would exclude most state inmates under Alabama law. The program excludes inmates convicted of violent offenses, which under Alabama law includes many convictions for theft and burglary.
Chambliss said state figures showed around 2,500 inmates would currently be eligible to participate. As of March, 16,907 inmates were housed in state prisons, labor release centers and community labor centers, and about 8,000 others were in the judicial custody of the Alabama Department of Corrections.
Chambliss called the bill a compromise. He said an earlier version would have allowed about 1,500 more inmates to qualify.
Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Office of Pardons and Lordships, said eligible inmates would be considered for parole earlier, although the release decision rests with the state parole board .
“It’s a small number. But if it works, you can take advantage of it, ”Ward said. “It is an excellent idea.”
The Alabama legislature has been slow to pass the sentencing changes. Ward, a former senator and state official, said such a bill would never have been passed five or six years ago.
The law will exclude inmates from participating if they have been convicted of a Class A or B felony classified as violent under Alabama law. However, state law classifies some thefts and burglaries as violent.
“We all think when we hear violence – rape, murderers, child molestation, stuff like that, assault. In many cases, you can have a break-in or a burglary where someone was not physically injured, ”Ward said.
The legislation directs the Alabama Department of Corrections to put in place rules for the program next year.
The US Department of Justice has an ongoing lawsuit against the Alabama prison system. Federal officials say male inmates in Alabama jails live in unconstitutional conditions with high rates of inter-inmate violence and a pattern of excessive force on the part of staff. The state challenged the findings.