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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Prison reform bills clear House logjam

montgomery Advertiser
By Mike Linn

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Rundown of Bills

The Alabama House on Tuesday passed eight bills in Gov. Bob Riley's prison reform package, despite criticism from some black members that the legislation would actually increase prison overcrowding and unfairly targets the poor.

The legislation, which faces Senate action before becoming law, would triple the maximum fines for those convicted of felonies and some misdemeanors, narrow large sentencing gaps that allow for inconsistent sentences and force judges to use a person's out-of-state driving under the influence convictions and driving record to enhance sentencing.

Rep. Marcel Black, D-Tuscumbia, who sponsored many of the bills, said the legislation approved Tuesday alone can't solve the state's prison overcrowding problem.

"Like any major problem, very few if any are solved immediately," he said after the House adjourned. "This is a step down that road."

Black said one of the bills, which passed 94-0, would help ease overcrowding because it would provide judges with more strict and consistent sentencing guidelines from court to court.

But many of the bills recommended by the Alabama Sentencing Commission would actually increase prison overcrowding, members of the Legislative Black Caucus argued.

"Not a single one of these bills address alternative sentencing, prison overcrowding and rehabilitation," Rep. James Buskey, D-Mobile, said. "We haven't even scratched the surface."

Moreover, increasing fines unfairly targets the poor, said Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery. "Of all the problems in Alabama, you all chose to raise court fines to pay Alabama judges. You know who is going to pay these fines: blacks and poor whites."

Holmes postponed the bill, forcing Black to amend it to exclude increased fines for violations and Class C misdemeanors.

Holmes also criticized the DUI bill, saying some states convict suspects for DUI with lower blood alcohol levels than are permissible in Alabama. He also said Alabama has one of the toughest DUI laws in the country.

Despite the critics, Black said the bills would help overcrowding. He said the House has yet to vote on a bill that would allow more nonviolent offenders to serve sentences in work release programs, which would free up prison beds for violent offenders.

As I stated last week these bills will do nothing to ease prison overcrowding in Alabama. Rep. Holmes and Rep. Buskey are absolutely correct in their opinions of this bill. This is nothing more than the legislature trying to look busy and pretending to do good things in an election year.


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