Pubdate: Tue, 28 Sep 2004
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2004 The Advertiser Co.


When a small group of family members of prison inmates marched this
past weekend to seek changes in Alabama's laws governing drug law
violators, lawmakers should have been listening. With Alabama's
prisons crowded to the point of bursting, the Legislature badly needs
to consider changes to the laws that put nonviolent drug abusers
behind bars for longer sentences than most states.

But the marchers need to focus their message if they expect
legislators to listen. Calling for legislators to ease prison time for
those who are there for using or possessing drugs for their own use is
one thing. Calling for easing laws on those who traffic in or
manufacture illegal drugs, as some marchers seemed to be doing, is
something else entirely.

Alabama's prisons are stuffed to the point that federal courts may one
day order mass releases of inmates, as they have done in the past. The
state already has expedited paroles to ease overcrowding, but with
only modest success. The state currently has more than 23,600
prisoners jammed into facilities designed to hold half that number.
(See chart above.) Add those still held in county jails and the total
number of state inmates is more than 26,000.

While some experts estimate that drug abuse plays a role in as many as
80 percent of the cases that land someone in prison, there are about
4,000 inmates actually in prison for drug convictions of some sort
everything from manufacturing methamphetamines to trafficking in
cocaine, crack, heroin and marijuana.

About 1,100 of those 4,000 are inmates serving time as habitual
offenders, which means that they had multiple convictions.

It is unlikely that those interested in getting shorter sentences for
inmates convicted of drug crimes will have much success with certain
types of drug offenses. If someone is a major trafficker or if they
manufacture illegal drugs, they belong behind bars for a lengthy
period. That goes double if they sold drugs to children. There is
nothing wrong with lengthy sentences for those whose drug convictions
involved violence or weapons or physical threats.

However, according to Corrections Department figures for 2003, there
were more than 2,000 inmates serving time that year for possession of
a controlled substance, and more than 500 for possession of marijuana.
It is difficult to establish how many of those had other, more serious

If Alabama is locking up people for lengthy sentences who only
possessed illegal drugs for their own use, who were not trafficking in
them, and who had no violent acts connected to the convictions, that
would seem a likely place for lawmakers to consider reform measures.

Please note that we are not suggesting that these violators get off
without punishment. But with state prisons crowded far past capacity,
with dwindling budgets and with taxpayers unwilling to pay more for
new and bigger prisons, it makes sense to look into alternatives to
lengthy incarcerations for nonviolent, nontrafficking drug offenders.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Larry Seguin