Lawmakers are studying a set of proposals to bring order and sense to Alabama sentencing procedures.
We hope the proposals find favor with the lawmakers, for they would address a situation that makes no sense at all.
In short, this is it: Alabama does not have enough revenue to operate its Department of Corrections. Prisons are overflowing with inmates. There is a chronic shortage of guards. Facilities are deteriorating, posing health and safety hazards for the communities in which they are situated. And there is not enough money to build more prisons.
Yet the state's rate of incarceration is the fifth highest in the nation. Too often, we make no distinction between cold-blooded murderers and drug abusers. We pack them all off to prison.
More people go to prison for drug possession, in fact, than they do for murder, rape, robbery and manslaughter combined. None of the five top reasons for which inmates are incarcerated in Alabama involves a violent crime.
We're all for punishing offenders, but the state has reached and passed a breaking point. Gov. Riley's desperate attempt to deal with the relentless inmate overflow -- speeding paroles for non-violent offenders -- has crashed and burned. Though hundreds of inmates have been released, prisons remain jammed. Complaining that some criminals were released who should have stayed in jail, legislators are considering dismantling the program.
Again, it doesn't make sense.
But consider the alternative before the lawmakers.
Called Sentencing Standards, it would inaugurate a point system based on the current offense and criminal history of the convict. It would cover 26 crimes and determine who goes to prison ( someone with eight points or more ) and who is a good candidate for alternative sentencing.
The standards would send fewer non-violent offenders to prison while offering more effective ways of dealing with drug-related crimes, including treatment programs for offenders.
While it would be voluntary for judges, the proposed system also could bring some order to what is now a sentencing disparity bordering on chaos if it is widely adopted. Instead of seeing an inmate sentenced to 10 years for a drug crime in one county and another meted 18 months for the same crime in another, the proposed new system would offer a logical uniformity.
Some critics say uniformity is needed as well to end racial disparities in sentencing. White men, for example, are much more likely to be convicted of felony DUI. Black men, however, account for 59 percent of the people imprisoned for marijuana possession in Alabama.
There is yet another potential benefit that Sentencing Standards offers. It would require convicts to serve their full sentences without getting early parole.
This concept -- truth in sentencing -- has been a goal of the state law enforcement community for years. Given the state's dire corrections situation, it's an idea whose time has come.