DA calls for new prisons

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Continued cuts in state funding and expected proposals to reduce prison populations will all-but cripple the ability of law enforcement officers to deter crime.

That’s the message Covington County District Attorney Walt Merrell gave the Andalusia Rotary Club Tuesday.

State funding for the local DA’s office decreased 31 percent from the 2008-09 fiscal year to the 2011-12 fiscal year. Gov. Robert Bentley has speculated that 9 percent proration of the state’s general fund budget – which basically funds all state functions except education and roads – may be necessary this year. And he’s likely to propose a budget for the next fiscal year that’s 25 percent less than the current year.

“If that happens, we’ll have had 65 percent cuts in five years,” Merrell said. “We will virtually shut down.”

A self-described fiscal conservative, Merrell said he supports cutting pork.

“But there’s no more fat to cut off of this pig,” he said.

Turning to prison overcrowding and proposals to give early release to “non-violent” criminals as a solution, Merrell used last week’s rape case as an example.

Four-time convicted felon Corey Darnell “Fred” Matthews was out on parole when he was arrested on Friday for allegedly raping an elderly Opp woman at knifepoint early Friday morning.

In 2001, Matthews pled guilty to a distribution charge and was given to a 20-year split sentence – five years in prison and 15 on probation. Matthews served the five years and was released. In June 2008, Matthews’ probation was revoked after he was arrested on a shoplifting charge, leaving him to serve the remaining 15 years of the 20-year sentence. Records show Matthews served 18-months of the sentence before being paroled by the Department of Corrections on Dec.

7, 2009, Merrell said.

“That’s the non-violent offender they are going to turn back on you,” he said.

At present, Alabama’s prisons are at 143 percent of capacity. In California, where prisons were at 200 percent of capacity, a federal judge ordered the state to correct the overpopulation problem, resulting in early releases. Alabama officials are fearful of a similar ruling here.

Turning to Andalusia Police Chief Wilbur Williams, Merrell asked, “Chief, what will happen if they let all those guys out?”

Williams said there would be a definite increase in crime rates.

“Recidivism (relapse into crime) is already 75 percent to 85 percent” among ex-prisoners, he said.

Merrell said there is more than one way to confront the prison problem. The first, he said, is with innovative programs like drug court, which allows first-time offenders of drug-related offenses to work through a program that includes drug-testing.

“The intent is for drug court to be a viable means of recovery,” he said. “If you don’t fix the addiction, then you don’t fix the problem.”

The other part of the solution, he said, is to build more prisons.