Alabama's governor is expected to sign an important sentencing reform bill passed last week by the legislature. The bill, SB 231, creates voluntary sentencing guidelines for the state, which has a serious prison overcrowding problem fueled largely by harsh sentences for nonviolent drug possession offenses (PDF report). Drug Policy Alliance worked to support the bill in the legislature as part of the New Bottom Line Campaign, an Alabama group that works to promote effective drug policies.
Voluntary sentencing guidelines are a key step in reducing prison overcrowding and reforming Alabama's chaotic criminal justice system. Over a third of all prison admissions last year were for low-level drug offenses, with sentences varying widely in severity throughout the state.
The new guidelines were developed by the state Sentencing Commission with significant input from the New Bottom Line Campaign. They alter the sentencing schemes in Alabama for a variety of offenses, making especially significant changes to drug offense sentences. For example, the new guidelines do not mandate a prison term for marijuana possession until the fourth offense. Current sentencing policy penalizes a second possession of marijuana as a felony with a mandatory minimum prison sentence, and a third offense can lead to a sentence of over 20 years or even life.
While the new guidelines will be voluntary, three fourths of judges are expected to follow them. Therefore, these guidelines are an extremely significant step forward for better drug and criminal justice policies in Alabama. The momentum from this victory will propel DPA and its partners in the New Bottom Line Campaign toward further substantive reform in the state, and in the South as a whole.
"This is just a small victory in a larger effort to end the war on drugs in Alabama," said Rev. Kenny Glasgow, co-director of the New Bottom Line Campaign and strong DPA ally. "This shows us that the dream is not impossible—in fact, another South is possible, and we’re working to build this movement. From the back of the bus to the front of the prison, the struggle for justice continues!"