US Marijuana Party

Tuesday, March 22, 2005

Easing strain on prisons

Birmingham News

The first sentence of News staff writer Carla Crowder's story in last Wednesday's paper tells much about why Alabama prisons are in such a world of hurt:

Alabama courts have sent more people to prison for drug possession than for the violent crimes of murder, manslaughter, rape and robbery combined, Crowder wrote, then followed up with the numbers to prove it.

The statistics cry out for a change in the way the state deals with nonviolent criminals. Simply locking them up - and in the process, filling up our prisons - isn't working.

Change must include a reform of the way courts sentence nonviolent offenders, making use of alternatives such as drug treatment and community corrections programs. That's the heart of a recommendation by the Alabama Sentencing Commission; a proposal that is now working its way through the Legislature.

There is compelling reason for action.

In 1979, prisons incarcerated 6,000 convicts. Today, the number is 27,000 - twice what the prisons were built to house.

Much of the reason for the swollen prison rolls is the state's tough but dumb approach to nonviolent criminals. We throw them into prison at a much higher rate than most states, and we keep them locked up longer.

Alabama's treatment of drug offenders is particularly telling. Last year, for example, drug possession was by far the crime that sent the most people to prison - 1,531, according to the Sentencing Commission. None of the top five categories was what could be termed a violent crime.

Over the past two decades, the number of people locked up on drug charges has increased 478 percent. And while the average length of sentence for drug offenders nationally is 4½ years, in Alabama the average drug sentence nets eight years.

Such a disparity clearly shows we're not doing something right. The state must find saner ways to punish offenders without overburdening our prisons.

Under the Sentencing Commission's proposal, a point system based on the offender's criminal history is used to help determine appropriate punishment.

For example, a person convicted of a nonviolent offense but who otherwise has a clean record could be sentenced to work release, probation, drug treatment or another alternative to incarceration. A history of other criminal activity means he's likely to go to prison.

A side benefit, but not a minor one, is that the standards could lessen sentencing disparities, since all judges could draw on the same guidelines in determining punishment.

The standards are voluntary - meaning judges can use them as a guide, but aren't required to do so. That leaves room for judges to exercise discretion where appropriate.

Bills to adopt the sentencing standards already have passed the judiciary committees in both the state House of Representatives and Senate. Both chambers should give them their OK.

While new sentencing standards won't solve all that ails state prisons, they are a smarter approach to dealing with nonviolent criminals than continuing to stuff them into already overburdened prisons.


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