The Decatur Daily, AL
Riley: Rehabilitation, sentencing reforms needed in corrections
Panel suggests prison reforms
By John Davis
October 14, 2005
Gov. Bob Riley is planning to throw his weight behind what will likely be a 10-bill package of sentencing and prison reforms to fight overcrowding in a corrections system that is operating at double its designed capacity.
Whether the bills will go into the legislative mix during January's regular session or sooner in a special session remains to be seen.
"Ultimately, you can't lock up everyone for every offense and keep them locked up for the rest of their life," Riley told his 11-member Task Force on Prison Overcrowding during a meeting with the group Thursday.
The task force's draft report includes a sentencing reform bill that has failed twice in the Legislature, passing the House both times only to get bogged down in the Senate.
The bill calls for voluntary sentencing standards for 26 felonies. Historically, the list of felonies covers 87 percent of convictions in Alabama.
According to the task force report, the law change would help alleviate "unwarranted sentencing disparity" in the courts.
The task force plans to issue its final recommendations to Riley in two weeks. The governor asked the panel to include recommendations regarding Alabama's victim notification law, which is slowing down the parole process.
Members of the task force offered some of their own ideas.
"I really feel that the habitual offender law ought to be reduced for nonviolent offenses," said Bob Harper, a retired Lee County circuit court judge. "I've seen it applied too many times in a way I think is unfair."
Birmingham resident Diana Summerford agreed.
Her son is serving a life sentence even though he was never convicted of a violent crime.
Summerford, who has asked that her son's name not be published, wants the task force sentencing recommendations to be retroactive -- something that is not likely to happen.
"I don't think (the task force) went deep enough because there's so many that are caught up in the system," Summerford said after the meeting. Her son is one of many drug addicts serving long sentences courtesy of Alabama's three-strikes law, which throws the book at felons on their fourth felony conviction.
The task force also is recommending that drug treatment and education play larger roles in the corrections system, though at least one member wants to radically change the sentencing laws for people caught with marijuana.
"I'd like to see it reduced to a misdemeanor regardless of how much you've had," said Jim Hill Jr., a St. Clair County circuit judge, referring to people with personal-use amounts of marijuana.
Other recommendations from the task force include creating centers to deal with probation and parole violators without sending them back to prison and forming programs to help inmates transition into the free world before being released.
Also, the task force would like to see a statewide network of community corrections programs that will give judges sentencing options beyond state prisons.
Gee, Bob, what a novel idea reforming the prisons is. If I recall correctly it was what you promised to do in the last campaign for Governor and what you have failed to do repeatedly since taking office despite the many commissions you have assembled to give you the answers.