Investigation reveals gaping disparities among community corrections programs

Investigation highlights disparities in state community correction programs

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - As lawmakers weigh options to alleviate Alabama's prison crisis, community-based programs will be strongly considered as an alternative to incarceration for non-violent property offenders.

Most judges across the state already have access to a community corrections system in their county or judicial circuit. Low-level, non-violent offenders are often sentenced to community corrections programs, or CCPs, allowing them to serve their sentence outside the walls of jail or prison. By law, CCPs are operated locally by directors and boards and overseen by the Alabama Department of Corrections. Based on the statute, local programs are offered great latitude in how they operate and the fees charged to participants.

The Southern Poverty Law Center commissioned an eight month investigation into Alabama’s CCPs. The findings published in the report, “Opportunity Costs: Unequal Justice in Alabama’s Community Corrections Programs” revealed polarizing programs with wide-ranging fees for the same services such as drug testing and general supervision.

The SPLC says many of the CCPs operate off fees charged to defendants who are sentenced to the program.

"It's not fully-funded, it relies on charging supervisees fees they can’t afford and it creates a system of perverse incentives", stated Ivy Wang, Senior Staff Attorney for the SPLC.

Based on the findings, all CCPs charge a general supervision fee which ranges from $25.00 to $150.00 based on the location. Shelby County’s CCP operates a residential work release program where defendants forfeit 40 percent of their income back to the program for fees, the same percentage ADOC cuts from its work release participants. That fee doesn’t include twice-weekly drug tests that cost $15.00 each.

The SPLC found that while some programs are barely breaking even other CCPs are profitable. Some receive grants and allocations from the county commission. Others must generate their own revenue.

"Instead of ensuring they will have success, they are looking to these people as sources of revenue", Wang stated of the fee structured program. "There’s no way to have both interests at the same time and protect the public."

Senator Cam Ward, Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee walked back that notion, stating it’s not a conflict of interest for someone to pay to get help turning their life around. However, he doesn’t believe CCPs should solely rely on fees to cover operational expenses.

“You can’t have the program where it’s only pay to play”, Ward stated, disqualifying those who can’t afford the fees.

Some programs are straightforward and charge modest fees.

In Montgomery County, those sentenced to community corrections pay a $30.00 supervision fee and $15.00 per drug test, both represent some of the lowest fees in the state.

Autauga and Elmore Counties have a joint community corrections program where participants are also charged a $30.00 general supervision fee and $25.00 for drug tests. Jennifer Smith, the CCP director says the program generally has 60 low-risk offenders, that's about half the program's capacity set by the ADOC.

The Administrative Office of Courts oversees court referral programs across the state, or CROs, which judges use to connect defendants with services for addiction and treatment. CROs are streamlined and have a set fee list. The research found the vast majority of CCPs are run under the same umbrella as CROs. In counties where defendants can be sentenced to both CCPs and CROs for separate offenses, it becomes difficult to determine what fees are being paid to each program. In some cases, services like supervision and drug testing are duplicated.

Researchers noted an example where the Marion-Winston Court Referral Services, Inc., ran both the CCP and the court referral program. They found a defendant who was paying both the CCP and the CRO the same fee on the same day - a duplication of services researchers noted throughout their findings. They asked the Administrative Office of Courts to review the organization’s records and AOC terminated the court referral contract.

As for the Elmore-Autauga County CCP, Smith says the CCP and CRO programs are operated separately; however, she coordinates with the CRO to avoid service duplication for drug tests. Smith admitted most struggle to pay their fees and she works with them on an individual basis.

“[The fees] are a big burden”, Wang stated. “They aren’t able to fulfill their obligations as parents, workers, and it’s holding them back…There’s a general lack of oversight. Even if the people running these programs are well-intentioned, there’s very little guidance on how to decide what supervision terms are necessary, what amounts would be reasonable to charge, and what to do if someone can’t pay.”

Despite the broad discrepancies in fees, Ward still believes CCPs are serving an important purpose. He admits full funding would deplete the state’s general fund. As a result, the counties must be able to design a program that meets the needs of the defendants in their area.

“The good part with the local autonomy is no two counties are the same”, Ward stated. “The needs of Houston County are far different than the needs of Shelby County.”

The greatest disparity in reported fees revolve around electronic monitoring. While programs in the tri-county elected to forego electronic monitoring others charge nearly $500.00 a month.

The data shows Escambia County charges $15.00 a day for electronic monitoring, adding up to around $450.00 a month, it’s one of the most expensive monitoring fees in the state. Lauderdale County charges a monthly fee of $360.00.

The law allows CCP’s to operate as a county authority or nonprofit agency. The investigation found some judges who sentence defendants to community corrections were also serving as board members for the CCPs, creating what researchers call a serious conflict of interest.

"Boards have a fiduciary interest for the organization", Wang stated.

Some community corrections programs also have work release. Those work release programs keep a percentage of the defendant’s check. In this case it ranges between 25 percent to 40 percent based on the county’s guidelines. In fact, researchers found judges are ordering defendants who haven’t been convicted to community corrections work release to earn money to make bail.

Investigators interviewed a defendant in Marshall County who was ordered to CCP work release prior to conviction in an effort to earn the money to post bond. Those defendants are required to live in a CCP residential unit. The report cites the defendant would make around $400.00, but would only be able to keep around $80.00 after paying fees and child support. If the defendant had the money on hand to make bond, CCP work release wouldn’t have been necessary.

"With what I was making, there was no way I could have saved up for [the bond]", the defendant states in the report.

Wang says community corrections doesn't have the legal authority to supervise those who haven't been convicted.

"Because it's run by ADOC it's there for people who have been found guilty of an offense", she stated. "The fact that community corrections is operating with pre-trial defendants, we find it deeply troubling. It's something we've run across in multiple counties."

WSFA 12 News posed the question to Ward who reiterated judges have this discretion. He complimented the programs in Shelby and Marshall Counties, stating the residential aspect of community corrections goes a long way to help treat those who are suffering from drug addiction.

The researchers disagree, calling the system involuntary servitude.

“The examples we have seen are deeply troubling, a massive amount of exploitation”, Wang stated. "It’s hard to envision a role for work release.”

Researchers say the findings should serve as a cautionary tale for lawmakers as they consider wide-ranging community-based alternatives.

"The problems we have seen are systemic", Wang stated. "The lack of funding is systemic, it’s ripe for abuse. The goal of having fewer people in prison is commendable one, but it has to be one in a way that's responsible. It's important that it doesn't create new forms of exploitation in the form of fees that people can't afford."

Due to the broad nature of the law, the findings are legal. WSFA 12 News requested information from the Alabama Department of Corrections regarding CCP assessments over the last three years. During that time, ADOC found all CCPs to be in compliance.

“We can make it better”, stated Ward. “Community corrections is an alternative to our state prisons, but we can’t make it pay to play where only people go who can afford it.”

For more information, you can read the study’s data and methodology.

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