Pubdate: Fri, 04 Mar 2005
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


Anyone who still doubts that sentencing reform is necessary if Alabama
is to ever resolve the chronic overcrowding problems of its prisons
should look at the results of the state's accelerated parole program.
By establishing a second parole board to address nonviolent offenders,
it was hoped that the prison population could be reduced to a more
manageable level.

In one sense, the program was a success. Nearly 4,200 inmates were
granted the early paroles by the board and a lot of nonviolent
offenders who presented no physical threat to the citizenry were moved
out of the overcrowded system, which had about twice as many inmates
as the facilities were designed to house.

In another sense, however, it accomplished very little. The prison
system still has about twice as many inmates as its designed capacity
should hold. That's because even as the accelerated parole program was
moving nonviolent offenders out, more nonviolent offenders were
streaming into the system.

The core problem is that Alabama incarcerates a lot of offenders who
do not need to be in penitentiaries. The state's sentencing structure
lies at the heart of the matter. Alabama has the nation's
fifth-highest incarceration rate. More than 40 percent of those
incarcerated are there for a property or drug offense.

"We're not going to solve the problem until we change the sentencing
system," said Rosa Davis, the chief assistant attorney general and a
member of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. "There's not enough gold
in Fort Knox to build the prisons we'd have to have."

Even if Alabama had the money to build all the prisons needed to
adequately house all its inmates, that would be a poor use of the
funds. Building some additional prison space is part of the solution
to overcrowding, but the critical element is sentencing reform that
sends fewer people to prison.
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