To read more information from the Alabama Sentencing Commission, click here.
Is some greater public purpose served by imprisoning people for the possession of marijuana? It's hard to see it, but in Alabama our harsh sentencing for drug possession offenses is applied as if it were a wondrous curative, even though it plainly is not.
This state has some of the stiffest sentences for drug possession in the nation. We also have some of the most overcrowded prisons in the nation. The two facts are not coincidental.
Alabama's penalties for drug possession are stronger than those for drunk driving, a crime vastly more dangerous to the safety of the public. The average drug possession sentence in the state is 8.4 years, according to the Department of Corrections, while the average felony DUI sentence is 4.8 years. (It also should be noted that DUI does not even become a felony until the fourth conviction.)
A report earlier this year from the Alabama Sentencing Commission noted that there were 3,202 drug-related offenses among the 10,267 prison admissions last year. That's almost a third.
Just what is being accomplished here? Our prisons are being jammed with inmates who don't need to be there. Individuals who need drug abuse treatment far more than traditional incarceration and who could serve sentences in ways that are more productive and less costly to the state are instead in prisons.
"We have overreacted totally with zero tolerance and a lot of people are being swept up for minor things and they have a little bit of drugs," observed Pete Johnson, a Jefferson County judge who presides over the drug court there. Johnson is a former member of the sentencing commission.
In Alabama, a drug possession sentence can reach 10 years. In Louisiana, North Carolina, West Virginia and Virginia, the sentence would be less than a year. It's 3-5 years in Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina.
Only Mississippi has a higher sentencing level at up to 16 years. That's the nation's highest level.
The Advertiser is not condoning the possession of marijuana; not at all. It's the punishment for that offense that we question, for both effectiveness and practicality.
"I think the problem with that is that we're using a lot of our prison beds for drug offenders," said Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, who chairs the House Judiciary Committee and serves on the sentencing commission. "With drug or substance abuse offenders, they're due punishment, but we also have to come up with a way to get them treatment."
Exactly. Simply locking them up is lousy public policy in every regard.
Regrettably, it also has been good politics. The "tough on crime" approach traditionally has sold well with voters, but it has been cruelly expensive for those taxpayers and ineffective in enhancing their safety.
What is most needed is the political will to reform sentencing and defend those reforms against the baseless claims of leniency that are invariably raised against them. Absent that, the situation can only be expected to worsen
For the record I am opposed to "decrim" and forced treatment as a way to fix the problems of the drug war. That being said I will say that I am happy to see this in the Montgomery Advertiser, the most conservative newspaper in the state. Alabama politicians are coming around....not because they think it is morally wrong to imprison people for their choice of mind altering substance, but because they can no longer afford to lock us up for years on end. I'll take that.....for now.....and work on the rest of the story as we progress to a saner Alabama.