Pubdate: Tue, 13 Aug 2013
Source: Daily Home, The (Talladega,  AL)
Copyright: 2013 Consolidated Publishing
Note:  also listed as contact


If U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and members of Alabama's 
Republican controlled legislature are in agreement on something, it 
must be a really good idea.

That's why we hope the initiatives by both will be successful in 
taming prison populations in both the federal prison system and in 
state prisons.

According to a report recently released by Bureau of Justice 
Statistics, both the federal prison system and Alabama state prisons 
have seen an increase in their number of inmates, bucking the 
national trend of decline.

Both are also over capacity. Alabama has incarcerated more than twice 
as many people as its prisons were designed to hold. That's 31,000 
inmates, with a system designed to house 14,000.

Overcrowding isn't the only problem seen in the system. 
Investigations of sexual harassment in the state's prison for women 
are ongoing, several state guards are facing prison in the beating 
death of an inmate, and just this weekend a state inmate died after 
being stabbed in prison.

Holder said federal prisons are about forty percent above capacity, 
having seen growth in the incarceration rate of almost 800 percent since 1980.

Statistics showed Alabama's per capita rate of incarceration to be 
the third highest in the nation, behind Louisiana and Mississippi. 
Alabama added about 650 new inmates per 100,000 people in 2012. 
Louisiana's ratio was 893 per 100,000. Other southern states making 
the top ten were Georgia and number 7 and Florida at number 8.

Alabama passed a pretrial diversion law that will provide drug courts 
and rehabilitation as alternatives to prison for non-violent 
offenders. People arrested on non-violent drug charges will be among 
those affected.

Holder wants to do much the same things, with people convicted of 
low-level drug offenses sent to treatment and community service 
programs. He also wants to expand a program allowing for the release 
of some of the elderly non-violent offenders now serving time.

Several states have already benefited from similar program, including 
Texas, which reduced its prison population by more than 5,000 last year.

Part of the problem has been the "War on Drugs" bandwagon, which has 
been popular with politicians for decades. The get-tough, 
throw-away-the-key rhetoric allowed penalties to be piled on so much 
over the years that we're being forced to have a new discussion over 
better solutions.

Even the profoundly conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., backs 
Holder's proposals. He said he is encouraged by the Obama 
administration's view that mandatory minimum sentences for 
non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public 
safety. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sees it differently. 
Grassley complained of the administration's overreach in decided 
which laws to enforce and which to ignore after they were passed by 
the people's representatives.

In Alabama, new sentencing guidelines were approved, but the Alabama 
District Attorneys Association and the lobbying group Victims of 
Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) aren't pleased. They are pushing for more 
input from crime victims in deciding on sentencing, and for the 
ability to use the threat of prison as a means to obtaining plea 
deals and avoiding the time and expense of having trials. They want 
to revisit the law with legislators, and we think that's a good thing.

Our justice system doesn't claim to be perfect, and it's only through 
continual refinement that it can be improved. Locking up dangerous 
criminals to protect the public is a no-brainer. Continuing the 
conversation about what to do with non-violent criminals is the right 
thing to do.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom