MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - Parole eligibility is an attractive target in an election year, but it comes around often - vote or no vote - as Alabama's prison population swells.
The number of state inmates rose dramatically during the past decade, but a legislative proposal that would chip away at the parole board's discretionary power could boost the locked-up population even more.
The state's prison population rose from 15,077 in 1990 to 25,873 by the end of the decade. The figure now stands at 26,741, as the Legislature considers a measure that would require certain inmates to serve at least 85 percent of their sentence before getting paroled.
Last year, the board considered 5,400 parole requests and denied 3,600 of them, parole board spokeswoman Cynthia Dillard said.
On Friday, a Montgomery judge ordered state prison officials to a backlog of state convicts from county jails by April 1, or face possible fines. The backlog has been reduced from nearly 2,000 inmates last summer to about 320.
The court has set a 30-limit on a state prisoner's stay in a county lockup before transfer to state prison.
Inmates affected by the 85 percent legislation include those convicted of murder, rape, sodomy, sexual torture, enticing a child, child pornography, promoting prostitution, soliciting a child by computer.
If approved, the new rule would become effective Oct. 1, applying to convictions after that date.
At present, a prisoner isn't eligible for parole until at least one-third or 10 years of the sentence is served, whichever is less, except by unanimous consent of the parole board.
State Sen. Zeb Little, D-Cullman, sponsored the "85 percent bill" that is under review in the Senate Judiciary Committee. The bill also would provide that on a second or subsequent conviction, the prisoner isn't eligible for parole.
Little, a lawyer in his first Senate term, said Sunday the bill, backed by Gov. Don Siegelman, was introduced last year, but wasn't approved. Opponents argue the state lacks funds to house all the prisoners, Little said.
"We're going to lock violent criminals up," Little said. "If we have to build more prisons, we'll have to build more prisons."
Little said he supports giving some discretion to the parole board, but he said violent criminals should know how much time they'll spend behind bars.
Miriam Shehane, director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, said the bill also should include manslaughter in the list of convictions for 85 percent of sentence to serve.
"DAs so often plead down murder cases to manslaughter," Shehane said.
She said victims shouldn't have to "beg" the parole board to force an inmate to serve the sentence given by a judge. "It's just too painful for victims," she said.
With the 85 percent rule, she said, "When they walk out of that courtroom, they'll know to some extent what they're going to serve."
University of Alabama criminal justice professor Robert Sigler said Alabama has never given the parole system adequate financial support. He said the 85 percent rule, if passed, would mean keeping more inmates behind bars, even though some may no longer be a threat.
"When election times comes around," he said, "politicians tend to make extreme statements about the justice system in order to get votes."
Sigler, who has served on Department of Corrections committees without pay, said it would be a mistake to try to tell "well trained professionals" in the parole system how to best protect Alabamians.
A U.S. Justice Department report on trends in the parole system says by the end of 2000, 15 states had abolished discretionary releases by a parole board. And another five states had abolished discretionary parole for certain violent offenders.
The report says parole determined by statute, or mandatory parole, is now "the most common method of release from state prison" in the United States. The trend away from discretionary release began in the 1980s, the Justice Department says.
But Dillard, the parole board spokeswoman, said the mandatory parole system takes away the inmate's incentive for good behavior.
"To take away the discretionary parole would lead to more problems in prison," Dillard said, reflecting the board's position.
She said the addition of parole officers, drug-testing, electronic monitoring, new computer equipment and other tools have contributed to an increase in the rate of successful paroles in Alabama.
Regardless of their method of release, nearly all state prisoners in the U.S. - at least 95 percent - will be released from prison at some point - nearly 80 percent on parole. Alabama had 6,291 adults on parole in 1990, compared to 5,494 in 2000, according to the federal report.