Pubdate: Sun, 02 Jun 2002
Source: Times Daily (AL)
Copyright: 2002 Times Daily
Author: Bernie Delinski


Truth in sentencing is a topic of much discussion in court and legislative 
circles these days. The state is trying to develop an improved sentencing 
structure for convicted prisoners. Illustration by TimesDaily Graphic 
Artist Sergio Portillo

You can almost see the wheels turning in the minds of the prosecutors, 
defense attorneys and virtually everyone else in the courtroom at a 
criminal sentencing hearing.

The judge in an Alabama courtroom has just handed down a prison sentence to 
the felon standing before him. Quickly, the minds of many in the courtroom 
begin working a division problem: What is one-third of that?

It's because they realize that, on average, the felon will walk out of 
prison in one-third the amount of time ordered in the sentence.

Truth in sentencing is a hot topic in courtrooms and legislative gatherings.

Some officials say a five-year prison sentence should mean five years in 
prison. Others say that's not realistic.

Lauderdale County Circuit Judge Mike Jones realizes the sentences he gives 
might be shortened once the offender is in the prison system. Jones also 
considers options such as work-release and split sentences to try to 
counter that.

"You've got to balance all of that when imposing a sentence," Jones said.

He said it seems as though years ago in Alabama, a three-year sentence 
meant three years in prison or close to it. Then, as people started getting 
paroled, prosecutors began asking for four-year sentences so the prisoner 
still would serve nearly three years.

"Then the parole board would give more time off of those four years to 
relieve overcrowding, so the prosecution started asking for even more 
prison time for offenders," Jones said.

That trend has widened the gap between sentences and time served. "Nobody 
knows what a sentence means anymore," he said.

Judges need discretion when delivering a sentence, Jones said. For example, 
two people found guilty of second-degree theft might not deserve the same 
prison time, depending on the circumstances of the crime.

The federal prison system has rigid sentences for crimes, but Jones said 
every criminal justice official he talks to says that is the wrong approach.

Alabama Attorney General Bill Pryor agrees. But Pryor also stresses that 
similar crimes need similar punishments. He said a Class B felony is 
punishable by a 2- to 20-year sentence.

"Someone in Mobile could get two years, and someone in Huntsville could get 
20," he said.

Consistent punishments for similar crimes allow the victim an idea of how 
long the criminal will be in prison, he said.

It also prevents accusations of offenders getting treated differently based 
on race, wealth or other factors.

Pryor said a felon serves an average of one-third of his sentence.

"We've been tough on crime, but I don't think we've always been smart on 

Local defense attorney Chris Connolly said he tries to assess how much 
prison time a client actually would serve when considering a plea bargain. 
But he knows that doesn't provide a guarantee, either.

"The state's sentencing system is a charade," Connolly said.

"If I tell my guy he'll be eligible for parole after one-third of his 
sentence, then he gets down there and there is a problem, he may not be 
paroled then," he said.

Searching for solutions Pryor has long been an advocate of sentencing reform.

"It's not merely a matter of truth in sentencing," he said. "I'd like more 
realistic sentences so the victim would know the actual time the offender 
will serve. Sentences in Alabama are often unrealistic and inappropriate."

As an example, Pryor said the sentencing problem in the state sometimes 
results in a judge issuing a 15-year sentence for a crime where a five-year 
sentence is more appropriate. The judge does so with the belief that the 
offender would get out in five years.

"We need to be honest with the public and say it's a five-year sentence."

The Alabama Sentencing Commission is exploring these issues. The group was 
formed by a 2000 state act to develop a comprehensive and improved 
sentencing structure.

The commission plans to issue a report in the 2003 legislative session. 
Officials don't want the victims to be forgotten if there is a sentencing 

That's good news to people like Mary Anne Rippey, who helped organize the 
local chapter of Victims of Crime and Leniency. Rippey's brother, Danny 
Sledge, was murdered in 1999 at his Lauderdale County restaurant.

Rippey said an emphasis should be placed on making sure that violent 
offenders serve most or all of their sentences.

Tough decisions should be made in order to keep violent offenders in 
prison. That could include alternative sentences for those who commit less 
serious crimes. Those sentences could include work-release, monitoring 
systems and probation.

"But nothing's a petty crime if it happens to you," she said. 
"Unfortunately, you have to draw the line somewhere."

Packing them in Jerry DeGregory, a criminal justice professor at the 
University of North Alabama who has a doctorate in sociology, said it's not 
popular to say truth in sentencing won't work.

"But there are problems with it," said DeGregory, whose sociology specialty 
involved criminology.

"The public is misled if they believe truth-in-sentencing laws will 
increase the length of time in prison," DeGregory said.

That won't happen, he said. The prison system is overcrowded and 
underfunded. There aren't enough correctional officers to support increased 

"If you have truth in sentencing, you'd have to reduce sentences, so that 
new sentences would be shorter."

DeGregory added that longer prison terms are unnecessary, except in severe 
violent crimes where the inmate might deserve a longer sentence.

He said an American Correctional Association study indicated that an inmate 
is as likely to commit a crime after being released after a 5-year sentence 
as he would after a 10-year sentence.

"So what you've done is taken someone and spent 10 years' worth of money on 
them instead of five years'," he said.

State and local authorities agree that overcrowding is the major obstacle 
to truth-in-sentencing changes.

There are about 27,000 inmates in the state prison system, according to the 
Alabama Department of Corrections. That includes about 20,000 in prisons 
and 3,600 in work-release. More than 2,000 are in county jails. The rest 
are in boot camp or other programs or institutions.

Tight space in prisons often results in state inmates remaining in county 
jails, forcing overcrowding on the county level.

"If you want a certain group in longer, you'll have to keep another group 
out or give that group a shorter sentence," DeGregory said.

Early release Many cases involving crimes that result in serious physical 
injury or death require the offender to serve at least 15 years, or 85 
percent of their term, said Steve Sirmon, attorney with the state Board of 
Pardons and Paroles.

Generally, those cases involve murder, manslaughter, some sex crimes and 
robberies involving serious injury, he said. Sirmon said the three-member 
pardons and paroles board takes numerous matters into account when 
considering an early release.

The board must be unanimous in allowing a prisoner out before one-third of 
the sentence is completed. At least two board members must agree to allow 
parole after one-third of the sentence.

He said prison overcrowding is among the factors the board keeps in mind. 
But they don't let that influence a decision on individual prisoners.

"That's not to say state officials haven't said 'step it up some,' " Sirmon 
said. "But they've never released anybody solely because of a shortage of 

Board members consider an inmate's personal and social history, details of 
the offense, criminal record, whether early release would be detrimental 
either to the inmate or victim and whether they believe the inmate would 
commit another crime, Sirmon said.

They also look at the inmate's conduct in prison and what plans he or she 
has if paroled, he said. Often, the inmate needs to have a job opportunity 
waiting. The victim and law enforcement officials involved in the case also 
are interviewed.

The board granted 1,772 paroles out of 5,452 requests during the fiscal 
2000-2001 year, according to board statistics. That's about 32.5 percent.

 From 1939 through 2001, the parole board has granted 80,120 parole 
requests -- about 39.8 percent, according to the board figures.

Since an inmate's behavior in prison is factored into the parole board's 
decision, that is used as an incentive by prison officials.

They tell the inmate their behavior has a direct impact on early release, 
and that sometimes helps control their behavior, Pryor said.

Good time or bad time? Sentencing Commission officials are looking into the 
state's system of "good time" credits. These award inmates credit for days 
served for good behavior. In its initial report, the commission expressed 
concern about the concept, which they say is difficult to understand and 
rewards an inmate for what should be expected: good behavior.

Under the current system, the average inmate receives 243 days of credit 
for every 365 days served, according to the commission's initial report.

"It has been viewed as an entitlement instead of a real incentive," Pryor said.

"Good behavior should be expected for everyone, not just something that is 

Pryor said good behavior should be rewarded in other ways, such as honor 
dorms. These are prison sections for those with model behavior. Inmates in 
that section must pursue educational opportunities.

"It's a tremendously different atmosphere in the honor dorms," he said.

DeGregory said inmates who are paroled remain supervised by the state.

"The irony is, when you deny parole and have someone serve a full sentence, 
they're unsupervised when they are released." he said. "You'd be better off 
to let them out and have them supervised while they adjust to life outside."

A major question in truth in sentencing comes down to whom you want in and 
whom you want out, DeGregory said.

"So, the people you can deal with outside the prisons could be pulled out, 
and then you can open up room and funds to put others in prison for a long 
time who deserve it."
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