November 2, 2005
Alabama needs a clear-eyed look at all of its laws that are significant factors in the prison overcrowding that plagues the state. Serious thought has to be given to whether the laws as written really accomplish desirable ends.
Accordingly, it was refreshing to see at least the possible beginning of a debate over Alabama's marijuana possession law in the comments of two members of Gov. Riley's prison overcrowding task force. Although Jim Hill, a St. Clair County circuit judge, and Robert Harper, a retired Lee County circuit judge, do not favor decriminalizing marijuana, they do question the wisdom of incarcerating people for possession.
That's an issue well worth debating. Possession of marijuana is a misdemeanor in Alabama -- for the first offense. With a second offense, it is a felony punishable by up to 10 years in prison. About 500 people are sentenced to prison for this offense each year.
Note that the offense is possession, not trafficking, which is an entirely different matter and one that clearly is a much greater threat to society. No one is talking about lightening up on drug dealers.
As the task force wound down its work last month, Harper suggested that some consideration should be given to making marijuana possession a misdemeanor. Hill said he could consider supporting the change if it were strictly limited to possession charges.
There are important questions to be asked. What benefit does the state get from incarcerating an individual for marijuana possession? Is the public safer as a result? Is the drug user better equipped to be a law-abiding citizen after serving prison time? Are the public resources required to keep an individual in prison best used for that in such cases, or would there be greater benefit from a community corrections program with drug treatment?
"According to the prison commissioner, 80 percent of our folks in jail or prison are illiterate or have a drug problem, and I think we need to start looking at who we want in prison," Hill observed.
"I'm personally in favor of us greatly expanding our community corrections programs and looking at these folks who are basically drug addicts and dealing with them in a community setting, where we can stress education and sobriety and holding them accountable, but at the same time leaving our prisons for people who are genuinely a danger to society."
Surely that makes more sense than sending a person to prison for marijuana possession. This is a debate Alabama clearly needs to have, particularly in the Legislature, where any changes in laws will have to take place.