Pubdate: Sun, 13 Mar 2011
Source: Ledger-Enquirer (Columbus, GA)
Copyright: 2011 Ledger-Enquirer
Author: Jim Mustian, Ledger-Enquirer


Policy Package Could Soften Stance on Non-Violent Criminals

Alabama lawmakers, grappling with a financial crisis and a beleaguered
criminal justice system, are considering a judicial reform package
designed to focus limited resources on violent criminals and alleviate
the state's perpetually overcrowded prisons.

The legislation culminates a study by a special coalition of jurists,
legislators and state officials who analyzed data for nearly a year.
This group, the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition,
concluded this month that the state cannot afford to build additional
prisons and must soften its stance on low-level drug and property
crimes to stem the imprisonment of non-violent criminals.

The report offered at once a scathing indictment of a criminal justice
system that has yielded a poor return on soaring taxpayer
contributions, and an optimistic series of policy changes designed to
save money and return the prison population to 2001 levels.

If approved, the coalition's proposals could thaw years of "tough on
crime" policies that have contributed to the state's burgeoning prison
population. At 190 percent capacity, Alabama's prisons are the most
overcrowded in the country, and at a time of budget shortfall, the
state lacks the means to accommodate the prisoners projected to enter
the system over the next five years.

Several of the recommendations -- including the creation of a new
Class D felony category -- have been incorporated into bills pending
in both chambers of the Legislature. The coalition has also proposed
bringing marijuana quantity thresholds in line with neighboring states
and raising the felony thresholds for various property crimes.

House Bill 128, meanwhile, would establish the First Time Felony
Offender Act, a provision that would afford special status to
defendants who have no previous felony or juvenile

Sen. Cam Ward, the Alabaster Republican who is the co-chairman of the
Senate Judiciary Committee, hopes the proposals will help with the
budget shortfall. If enacted, these proposals and others are projected
to save taxpayers about $106 million in correctional costs over the
next five years.

"We cannot afford to continue incarcerating people at this rate," Ward
wrote in an e-mail. "This package will focus on alternative programs
like drug courts and other sentencing options that do not require
non-violent, first time offenders to take up bed space that should be
for violent offenders."

Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said in her annual State of the Judiciary
address last week that the coalition's study showed Alabama "has a
major problem with the revolving door of recidivism."

"Unfortunately, research now demonstrates that our costly reliance on
incarceration of nonviolent offenders has not necessarily made us
safer," she said. "We need to be certain we are locking up those of
whom we are afraid -- not just those with whom we are mad."

Rep. Leslie Vance, R-Phenix City, said that whatever changes are
adopted, lawmakers need to ensure criminals still face some form of
punishment and that the public is protected. But, he added, "We really
need to look at the system and see what we can do better."

Russell County Circuit Court Judge Al Johnson last week said he was
not familiar with the specifics of the judicial reform package but
said, "The one thing I'm not in favor of is putting thugs on the
street." He added that he is not opposed to alternative sentencing in
some cases. "I don't mind cutting anybody a break the first time," he

Penchant for prison

The coalition's consensus report paints a grim picture of Alabama's
prison system. The amount of state prisoners has increased by more
than 15 percent over the past 10 years. About one in 75 adults is
behind bars, a ratio that gives the state the sixth highest
incarceration rate in a country that locks up more of its own than any

As of November, the state's teeming prisons housed 25,158 inmates,
according to Department of Corrections data. The coalition projected
that under current policies, the prison population will swell by 1,500
over the next five years, an increase that would require the
construction of an additional prison.

"Under the worst case scenario, Alabama's prison system could be put
under control of the federal courts, as California's has been, and
face orders to release inmates or follow other potentially undesirable
mandates," the report warned.

The surge in inmates has cost the state dearly. The average daily cost
per offender was $42.16, according to a September report by the
Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

In 2009, the state spent about $573 million on corrections -- a figure
that has nearly doubled over the past 10 years and more than
quadrupled since 1988. All the while, Alabama's crime rate has fallen
more slowly than other states', and recidivism has stubbornly
increased nearly every year over the past 13 years.

The state's recidivism rate was about 24 percent 10 years ago,
according to a Department of Corrections study, but it increased to
about 35 percent for inmates set free in 2006.

Focus on violent offenders

In its special report, the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing
Coalition attributed the prisoner spike to a steady flow of low-level
drug and property offenders who are increasingly being sentenced to
lengthy prison terms. The report found that non-violent offenders
account for about half of the incarcerated population and that 70
percent of new admissions each year stem from drug and property
offenses, many of which are Class C convictions.

The coalition attributed this trend in part to the state's rigid
Habitual Felony Offender Act, a law that was passed in 1980 in an
effort to get tough on crime. Unlike many other states that require
three prior convictions, Alabama's "one strike" law triggers sentence
enhancements for all non-violent and violent offenders alike who have
a previous felony conviction.

"If the Habitual Offender Felony Act kicks in, the district attorney,
judges and everyone else is pretty well boxed in as to what they can
do," said Thomas F. Worthy, a Phenix City defense attorney. "It may
have been an overreaction at some point to try to deter crime, but one
of the unforeseen effects is it's filled up our jails."

Senate Bill 204 would create a new classification of Class D felonies
that would not count toward the habitual offender tally. The bill
would re-classify several Class C felonies and amend the value
requirements for a host of property crimes. A new category of
fourth-degree burglary would differentiate between criminals who break
into buildings (Class D) and those who break into homes (Class C). The
sentencing range for Class D felonies would be significantly lower
(one to three years) than Class C (one to 10 years).

The policy package also aims to prevent prisoners from returning to
the penitentiary after they've been released. One of the more alarming
findings of the coalition's study showed that thousands of prisoners
are being released each year without any post-release supervision or
re-entry services.

"This means that these inmates are released to the street without any
monitoring or assistance to land on their feet," the consensus report
said, recommending six months of mandatory supervision for all
non-violent offenders following their release. The coalition also
proposed exempting felony drug offenses -- other than trafficking --
from a state law that requires the suspension of an offender's
driver's license. That change is designed to help convicts regain
their footing in the community and fulfill the requirements of their

Budget crisis

The coalition's report comes as a financial crisis is sweeping the
state. "This is the first time we've been in a financial crunch as
serious as this one appears to be," said Johnson, the Russell County
circuit judge. "The criminal justice system is just bulging at the
seams and there doesn't appear to be any thread to reinforce them."

Vance said any cuts that would affect corrections or public safety
should be among the last considered. "The governor hopes we won't cut
there, but who knows? We may have to do it in the end," he said.
"We're just getting into the real nitty-gritty of the budget."

Johnson said the judiciary in Russell County is bracing for cuts that
could stall civil litigation and cause the courts to go without
part-time bailiffs. Meanwhile, the district attorney's office faces
proration and the clerk's office already is doing without several
employees lost during a previous round of cuts.

"We've already cut to the bare bone," Johnson said. "Now we might be
starting to cut bone." 
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