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  • 18,000 Ala. prisoners could go free

18,000 Ala. prisoners could go free

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MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) -

The Department of Corrections may have to release about 18,000 inmates from the state's prisons due to budget cuts.

"The only way you can significantly impact our budget is by prisoner release" Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said. "That's just the bottom line."

The Alabama House and Senate each passed different versions of the state's General Fund which provides operating expenses for most state agencies except for education. The Department of Corrections and the Medicaid Agency are the two largest beneficiaries of the fund.

The Alabama Department of Corrections has about 25,500 prisoners in its facilities across the state.

The Alabama Senate approved $183.6 million for the state's prison system last week while the Alabama House of Representatives approved a significantly higher $342.6 million earlier in the session.

Thomas said both violent and non-violent offenders would be released under the Senate's budget proposal.

"Those 18,000 creates almost immediate risk to the public and leaves us a rather stagnant 9,000 inmates which is basically taking your death-row, your life without parole" Thomas said.

Corrections and Medicaid are both struggling for level-funding from the General Fund for the 2013 fiscal year.

Under this scenario, Medicaid would achieve what is basically a minimum level of funding at $603 million while Corrections would be crippled by comparison with a $197 million cut compared to the 2012 fiscal year after proration.

Democrats in the Alabama Senate offered an amendment to the General Fund late last Thursday that shifted funds from Corrections to Medicaid. The GOP-controlled Senate approved the change. Democrats have accused Republicans throughout the 2012 Regular Session of putting prisoners ahead of Medicaid clients.

"I'm more scared of senior citizens being turned away from nursing homes because we're not funding Medicaid" Senate Minority Leader Roger Bedford (D – Russellville) said. "That children are sick and dying because we don't give them preventive care."

Governor Robert Bentley's office issued a statement on the crisis facing the General Fund saying, "The current General Fund pending in the Legislature is unworkable, whether the hole is in Medicaid or in Corrections.  We must prioritize both the health and the public safety of our citizens and our communities." He also pledged to work with the legislature on a solution.

The final day lawmakers can pass the budgets is Wednesday. Governor Bentley has pledged to veto a General Fund that does not adequately fund Corrections and Medicaid. A veto would require lawmakers to meet for a Special Session to craft a General Fund before the end of the 2012 fiscal year in September.

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