Saturday, February 24, 2007

Sentencing still critical

February 24, 2007
Montgomery Advertiser

Its conclusions are anything but new, yet it is important for Alabamians and their political leaders to take note of a new report from the highly regarded Pew Charitable Trusts on the seemingly uncontrollable prison population here and in many other states. The nonprofit organization does first-rate research and its observations are well worth heeding.

Alabama's prison overcrowding problem is all too familiar. It's been a pressing issue for years. The facts, as ugly as they are familiar, bear recounting.

The number of inmates serving sentences from Alabama now stands at about 28,400. About 1,200 of those are serving time in private prisons in Louisiana, sent there because our state's prisons have no place for them.

More than 27,000 inmates are in Alabama prisons -- in a system designed to handle about 13,000. It's been this way for so long that one suspects many Alabamians have come to see it as the norm, perhaps even to assume that there's little wrong with operating in this way.

There is a great deal wrong with operating in this way. As the Advertiser's Nigel Duara reported, Alabama's heavy incarceration of nonviolent offenders, in particular drug offenders, helps drive the overcrowding problem.

Since 1999, their numbers in the system have increased at twice the rate of violent offenders, and the average sentence for drug offenses is almost 60 percent longer than it was 20 years ago. This is a recipe for trouble -- unless a state is willing to embark on a enormously expensive prison building program that will create the capacity to handle so sizable an inmate population.

A far better approach, fiscally and in every other respect, is more sensible sentencing that sends to prison the offenders who should go to prison, but channels other offenders into less costly and more productive programs. Sticking a nonviolent drug offender in a prison cell is an expensive option.

The Pew report suggests a binding sentencing policy, something more than the well-intended but toothless voluntary standards offered by the Legislature. Although those standards are a decided improvement, the fact that no judge has to abide by them greatly reduces their effectiveness.

It's important to allow some judicial discretion in sentencing, but Alabama's sentencing structure has sentencing ranges that vary too widely. This can result in severely disproportionate sentences for similar offenses, and contributes to prison overcrowding.

According to a statistician with the Alabama Sentencing Commission, if the sentencing guidelines were followed in every court, the prison population would stabilize at about 1,000 inmates below the current level, rather than rising by another 2,000 by 2011. Consider the implications of that for our state.

The case for sentencing reform has been easy to make for years now. The Pew report is one more in a long string of arguments for it.

It's great that Pew Charitable Trusts came down and got these numbers together and issued these recommendations....but damn, I have been telling the state government this information for free for years and issuing the same recommendations. Stop locking up people who did nothing more than smoke a joint, top locking up people who have harmed no one other than perhaps themselves. It isn't the governments job to protect citizens from themselves.

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