Pubdate: Sun, 10 Apr 2005
Source: Montgomery Advertiser (AL)
Copyright: 2005 The Advertiser Co.
Note: Letters from the newspaper's circulation area receive publishing priority


Is some greater public purpose served by imprisoning people for the
possession of marijuana? It's hard to see it, but in Alabama our harsh
sentencing for drug possession offenses is applied as if it were a
wondrous curative, even though it plainly is not.

This state has some of the stiffest sentences for drug possession in
the nation. We also have some of the most overcrowded prisons in the
nation. The two facts are not coincidental.

Alabama's penalties for drug possession are stronger than those for
drunk driving, a crime vastly more dangerous to the safety of the
public. The average drug possession sentence in the state is 8.4
years, according to the Department of Corrections, while the average
felony DUI sentence is 4.8 years. (It also should be noted that DUI
does not even become a felony until the fourth conviction.)

A report earlier this year from the Alabama Sentencing Commission
noted that there were 3,202 drug-related offenses among the 10,267
prison admissions last year. That's almost a third.

Just what is being accomplished here? Our prisons are being jammed
with inmates who don't need to be there. Individuals who need drug
abuse treatment far more than traditional incarceration and who could
serve sentences in ways that are more productive and less costly to
the state are instead in prisons.

"We have overreacted totally with zero tolerance and a lot of people
are being swept up for minor things and they have a little bit of
drugs," observed Pete Johnson, a Jefferson County judge who presides
over the drug court there. Johnson is a former member of the
sentencing commission.

In Alabama, a drug possession sentence can reach 10 years. In
Louisiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, the sentence
would be less than a year. It's 3-5 years in Florida, Kentucky and
South Carolina.

Only Mississippi has a higher sentencing level at up to 16 years.
That's the nation's highest level.

The Advertiser is not condoning the possession of marijuana; not at
all. It's the punishment for that offense that we question, for both
effectiveness and practicality.

"I think the problem with that is that we're using a lot of our prison
beds for drug offenders," said Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, who
chairs the House Judiciary Committee and serves on the sentencing
commission. "With drug or substance abuse offenders, they're due
punishment, but we also have to come up with a way to get them treatment."

Exactly. Simply locking them up is lousy public policy in every

Regrettably, it also has been good politics. The "tough on crime"
approach traditionally has sold well with voters, but it has been
cruelly expensive for those taxpayers and ineffective in enhancing
their safety.

What is most needed is the political will to reform sentencing and
defend those reforms against the baseless claims of leniency that are
invariably raised against them. Absent that, the situation can only be
expected to worsen.
- ---
MAP posted-by: Derek