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Ala. Lawmakers eye judicial reform plan as prisons overflow

Alabama lawmakers, grappling with a financial crisis and a beleaguered criminal justice system, are considering a judicial reform package designed to focus limited resources on violent criminals and alleviate the state’s perpetually overcrowded prisons.

The legislation culminates a study by a special coalition of jurists, legislators and state officials who analyzed data for nearly a year. This group, the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition, concluded this month that the state cannot afford to build additional prisons and must soften its stance on low-level drug and property crimes to stem the imprisonment of non-violent criminals.

The report offered at once a scathing indictment of a criminal justice system that has yielded a poor return on soaring taxpayer contributions, and an optimistic series of policy changes designed to save money and return the prison population to 2001 levels.

If approved, the coalition’s proposals could thaw years of “tough on crime” policies that have contributed to the state’s burgeoning prison population. At 190 percent capacity, Alabama’s prisons are the most overcrowded in the country, and at a time of budget shortfall, the state lacks the means to accommodate the prisoners projected to enter the system over the next five years.

Several of the recommendations -- including the creation of a new Class D felony category -- have been incorporated into bills pending in both chambers of the Legislature. The coalition has also proposed bringing marijuana quantity thresholds in line with neighboring states and raising the felony thresholds for various property crimes.

House Bill 128, meanwhile, would establish the First Time Felony Offender Act, a provision that would afford special status to defendants who have no previous felony or juvenile convictions.

Sen. Cam Ward, the Alabaster Republican who is the co-chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, hopes the proposals will help with the budget shortfall. If enacted, these proposals and others are projected to save taxpayers about $106 million in correctional costs over the next five years.

“We cannot afford to continue incarcerating people at this rate,” Ward wrote in an e-mail. “This package will focus on alternative programs like drug courts and other sentencing options that do not require non-violent, first time offenders to take up bed space that should be for violent offenders.”

Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said in her annual State of the Judiciary address last week that the coalition’s study showed Alabama “has a major problem with the revolving door of recidivism.”

“Unfortunately, research now demonstrates that our costly reliance on incarceration of nonviolent offenders has not necessarily made us safer,” she said. “We need to be certain we are locking up those of whom we are afraid -- not just those with whom we are mad.”

Rep. Leslie Vance, R-Phenix City, said that whatever changes are adopted, lawmakers need to ensure criminals still face some form of punishment and that the public is protected. But, he added, “We really need to look at the system and see what we can do better.”

Russell County Circuit Court Judge Al Johnson last week said he was not familiar with the specifics of the judicial reform package but said, “The one thing I’m not in favor of is putting thugs on the street.” He added that he is not opposed to alternative sentencing in some cases. “I don’t mind cutting anybody a break the first time,” he said.

Penchant for prison

The coalition’s consensus report paints a grim picture of Alabama’s prison system. The amount of state prisoners has increased by more than 15 percent over the past 10 years. About one in 75 adults is behind bars, a ratio that gives the state the sixth highest incarceration rate in a country that locks up more of its own than any other.

As of November, the state’s teeming prisons housed 25,158 inmates, according to Department of Corrections data. The coalition projected that under current policies, the prison population will swell by 1,500 over the next five years, an increase that would require the construction of an additional prison.

“Under the worst case scenario, Alabama’s prison system could be put under control of the federal courts, as California’s has been, and face orders to release inmates or follow other potentially undesirable mandates,” the report warned.

The surge in inmates has cost the state dearly. The average daily cost per offender was $42.16, according to a September report by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

In 2009, the state spent about $573 million on corrections -- a figure that has nearly doubled over the past 10 years and more than quadrupled since 1988. All the while, Alabama’s crime rate has fallen more slowly than other states’, and recidivism has stubbornly increased nearly every year over the past 13 years.

The state’s recidivism rate was about 24 percent 10 years ago, according to a Department of Corrections study, but it increased to about 35 percent for inmates set free in 2006.

Focus on violent offenders

In its special report, the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition attributed the prisoner spike to a steady flow of low-level drug and property offenders who are increasingly being sentenced to lengthy prison terms. The report found that non-violent offenders account for about half of the incarcerated population and that 70 percent of new admissions each year stem from drug and property offenses, many of which are Class C convictions.

The coalition attributed this trend in part to the state’s rigid Habitual Felony Offender Act, a law that was passed in 1980 in an effort to get tough on crime. Unlike many other states that require three prior convictions, Alabama’s “one strike” law triggers sentence enhancements for all non-violent and violent offenders alike who have a previous felony conviction.

“If the Habitual Offender Felony Act kicks in, the district attorney, judges and everyone else is pretty well boxed in as to what they can do,” said Thomas F. Worthy, a Phenix City defense attorney. “It may have been an overreaction at some point to try to deter crime, but one of the unforeseen effects is it’s filled up our jails.”

Senate Bill 204 would create a new classification of Class D felonies that would not count toward the habitual offender tally. The bill would re-classify several Class C felonies and amend the value requirements for a host of property crimes. A new category of fourth-degree burglary would differentiate between criminals who break into buildings (Class D) and those who break into homes (Class C). The sentencing range for Class D felonies would be significantly lower (one to three years) than Class C (one to 10 years).

The policy package also aims to prevent prisoners from returning to the penitentiary after they’ve been released. One of the more alarming findings of the coalition’s study showed that thousands of prisoners are being released each year without any post-release supervision or re-entry services.

“This means that these inmates are released to the street without any monitoring or assistance to land on their feet,” the consensus report said, recommending six months of mandatory supervision for all non-violent offenders following their release. The coalition also proposed exempting felony drug offenses -- other than trafficking -- from a state law that requires the suspension of an offender’s driver’s license. That change is designed to help convicts regain their footing in the community and fulfill the requirements of their probation.

Budget crisis

The coalition’s report comes as a financial crisis is sweeping the state. “This is the first time we’ve been in a financial crunch as serious as this one appears to be,” said Johnson, the Russell County circuit judge. “The criminal justice system is just bulging at the seams and there doesn’t appear to be any thread to reinforce them.”

Vance said any cuts that would affect corrections or public safety should be among the last considered. “The governor hopes we won’t cut there, but who knows? We may have to do it in the end,” he said. “We’re just getting into the real nitty-gritty of the budget.”

Johnson said the judiciary in Russell County is bracing for cuts that could stall civil litigation and cause the courts to go without part-time bailiffs. Meanwhile, the district attorney’s office faces proration and the clerk’s office already is doing without several employees lost during a previous round of cuts.

“We’ve already cut to the bare bone,” Johnson said. “Now we might be starting to cut bone.”