The News Courier in Athens, Alabama

May 16, 2012

Can state afford to imprison for small offenses?


Associated Press

From The Press-Register in Mobile:

Legislators are considering a promising bill that would ease overcrowding in Alabama prisons without making judges appear to be soft on crime.

Sponsored by state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the bill would limit the discretion that judges have in sentencing nonviolent criminals, with few exceptions. Judges would no longer be allowed to ignore the guidelines — which have been voluntary since 2006 — and impose longer sentences because of public pressure.

The measure has been approved by the Senate and deserves swift passage in the House.

Indeed, Alabama is paying a price for being tough on crime. The state’s prison system stands at 190 percent of capacity — a higher percentage even than California’s, which was ordered by the U.S. Supreme Court last year to release 30,000 inmates.

Unless we want to risk inviting a lawsuit and a similar court order, Alabama’s going to have to take the initiative and fix the problem on its own. The proposal by Ward is a far better solution than continuing to build new prisons at a minimum of $80 million each.

The Alabama Sentencing Commission reports that four of the top five convictions that send people to prisons in the state stem from drug or property convictions. This is where Ward’s bill would do the most good, by allowing sentencing guidelines to steer nonviolent offenders to parole and other programs, thereby slowing the influx to prison.

It may be popular to lock up offenders charged with low-level drug crimes such as possession or distribution, but many judges agree that it is neither practical nor affordable.

The better plan is to place those who are nonviolent in community supervision programs, faith-based initiatives and other alternative programs.

This would allow prisons to focus on housing the most violent offenders who are sent to prison for assault, rape, murder and the like. Obviously, they need to stay locked up for the good of society.

Alabama doesn’t have to give up its tough-on-crime stance completely. We just need to be smarter about the crimes we’re tough on.