October 2, 2013
Alabama rolls out new presumptive sentencing guidelines (which prosecutors mostly oppose)
While October 1, 2013 was an eventful day around the nation with the roll-out of the new federal health care law and the partial federal government shut down. But in Alabama, the start of October 2013 was also a big deal because it was the effective date for the application of new sentencing reforms. And, in sharp contrast to the federal sentencing system where applicable guidelines are distinctly harsh and draw the ire mostly of defense attorneys, under Alabama's new more lenient guidelines, it is the prosecutors who are complaining about judges having to follow presumptive sentencing rules.
This local article, headlined "More Alabama nonviolent offenders may avoid prison under law now in effect, DAs not happy," explains the new Alabama sentencing world and the concerns being expressed by prosecutors about having judges having to follow sentencing laws they disfavor:
Thieves, small-time drug dealers, repeat drug-users and other nonviolent offenders will find the world has changed beginning today, as Alabama tries to cope with its bursting-at-the-seams prison system by being more “selective” about who gets locked up.
Starting today new sentencing guidelines cover many nonviolent theft and drug charges. Burglary and drug trafficking charges are not on the list, but Alabama’s habitual offender laws that led to long sentences after two or more prior felonies will no longer automatically result in decades-long prison sentences for nonviolent offenders.
There are numerous changes, but the key differences are that judges in most cases are expected to use a worksheet to guide the decisions about “in or out of prison” and “how long a sentence.”
There have been complaints by prosecutors and some judges that the guidelines take the court’s discretion out of the system. The guidelines were developed beginning in 2000 and went into effect in 2006 as “voluntary.” But guideline use varied widely around the state, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. In 2012, the Alabama Legislature agreed to make the guidelines “presumptive” meaning they would be applied unless compelling reasons were found to deviate from the guidelines.
Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard said in a purely theoretical world, his office would oppose the new sentencing system. “But in the practical, budget-driven world, we understand why we have them,” Broussard said. “In this state, as in a lot of jurisdictions, we can about talk justice and what something is worth until we’re blue in the face, unfortunately it’s a money game. Do you have space to house criminals or not?”
Wright said prison costs and issues of fairness have driven the new process. “Alabama has the most overcrowded prison system in the country,” he said. “There is a very serious funding issue, coupled with an overcrowding issue and something has to be done. The state has to be increasingly more selective about which nonviolent offenders are sentenced to prison.”
Defendants facing similar charges across the state were not getting the same sentences, an issue that the Sentencing Commission has long been concerned about, Wright said. “The commission’s goal was to eliminate as much unwanted disparity as possible and create as much uniformity statewide as possible,” he said. “There has not been a lot of uniformity statewide amongst similar cases. You could have neighboring counties -- whether urban or rural, some in the same courthouse -- with judges using different practices. It was varied across the state, and a lot of people’s reactions have been, ‘That’s why it’s presumptive now.’ It’s an issue of fundamental fairness.”....
The Alabama District Attorneys Association has also been critical of the changes, arguing the rules will limit prosecutors’ ability to punish repeat offenders. St. Clair County District Attorney Richard Minor, president of the Alabama District Attorneys Association, said the association is working on proposed legislation for changes to the law.
Minor said the DA’s would like to see multiple charges in a drug distribution case be counted individually in the guidelines, rather than as one sentencing event which could lessen the likelihood of prison. Minor said he’s also concerned by what the worksheet requirements leave out.
“I think it’s hard to determine someone’s criminal behavior and their ability for rehabilitation, based on numbers on a sheet of paper,” Minor said. “I think a DA’s office and judge in the community have more information than can be put down on paper.”
I find it so very telling that when states create sentencing guidelines which generally push judges away from long prison terms (unlike the federal guidelines which general push judges toward long prison terms) we hear state prosecutors complaining that use of guidelines at sentencing does not capture all the unique facets of offenses and offenders. This provide for me still more proof that the severity of applicable rules is what really shapes the litigants perspectives as to whether sentencing guidelines should be presumptive or merely advisory.
For lots of reasons, and perhaps especially because Alabama's sentencing laws are evolving in kind of the reverse concerning how federal sentencing laws evolved over the last 25 years, I think sentencing reformers ought to be studying Alabama sentencing reforms past, present and future very closely. Helpfully, as the state starts a new sentencing reform chapter, the local papers have all this notable new coverage of developments:
- "Madison County courts must adjust to new, lighter sentences for nonviolent offenders"
- "Mobile-area prosecutors rip sentencing rules calling for little or no prison time"
- "First challenge in sentencing guidelines? Getting judges to fill out the paperwork"
- "Shortsighted? Critics question whether sentencing reform will create repeat offenders"
October 2, 2013 at 09:20 AM | Permalink
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Is it any shock that people who enjoy inflicting pain on others are going to cry when their cattle prods are taken away?
Posted by: Daniel | Oct 2, 2013 4:45:44 PM
WHEN will all states and free citizens undersstand that prison should return a better person than what they take in????
The States should all review and make good changes to encourage not repeating the mistake they have been caught doing.
I am a Florida mom of a non-violent repeat drug offender inmate. Getting him off drugs was the need--not feeding and abusing him for the rest of his and my lives. "Can you believe the State amd the public would have him locked up for 20-30 years of his life that he could have already been out and being a productive tax paying citizen helping to pay to incarcarate the dangerious sex offenders,murderers and mass violent ones???
The people out here have been sold a bill of goods by the Dept. of Corrections and their excuses for sorry performance in correcting problems we face when these inmates do eventually get out.
Dept. of Corrections almost know the inmate will usually come BECAUSE No.1 it is fixed so that the inmate can hardly get a job to live---WHY NOT MAKE IT A CRIME for anyone TO DISCRIMINATE AGAINST AN INMATE WHO HAS SERVED THEIR TIME AND LET THEM START OVER. IF they mess up again, put them away for that mess up, not for what they have already paid for in the past.
Posted by: leverne hatcher | Oct 3, 2013 11:29:22 AM
Prof. Berman:: "I find it so very telling that when states create sentencing guidelines which generally push judges away from long prison terms .. we hear state prosecutors complaining that use of guidelines at sentencing does not capture all the unique facets of offenses and offenders."
This posture does appear hypocritical.
Posted by: Adamakis | Oct 4, 2013 1:19:01 PM
In all honesty, I DO NOT agree with the change. I am a Corrections Officer, HOWEVER, everyday I wake up for work, I wake up with the mind for change. I do not treat the inmates like trash I treat them with respect, I try to offer knowledge and wisdom, I try to help them find the want to enroll in classes, pick up trades. I do encourage them! This new sentencing however, is gong to brig about MORE nonviolent offender. Now people are not going to have the fear of "Prison" but the "I don't care" attitude because the State is basically saying to them, "We don't care rob people, just don't use a weapon and don't kill them and we wont send you to prison." Basically! Some people DO learn fro mistakes, weather they are big or small, but some people just have it in them and they know right from wrong but still do wrong. I am not a professional at this but I do work with these criminals, Murderers, sex offenders, thieves and more EVERYDAY, I know their ways, their thought process for the most part. I would love to not have to monitor a dorm of 70-150 inmates, BUT, I would also love to not hear, or watch on the tv or hear about someone getting robbed, killed, raped or ran off the road because of someone who was on drugs, or wanted money.
Posted by: Lariva Calhoun | Oct 27, 2013 9:50:09 PM
I have a daughter who was accursed of assault 2 on a police officers i was there and it did not happen but if we go to court they will believe the police over us because her witness are family but at least with this guideline it recommends non prison time as she has no priors of any kind not even as a youth,In this i feel like like the guidelines are fair there are to many people out their really hurting people so lets concentrate on them not someone who has never been in trouble
Posted by: gloria m | Nov 13, 2013 5:30:57 PM
To: L. Calhoun................ Thank you for writing that. I totally agree with you that continuing education and hope will get these boys through their trials and tribulations. The "I don't care" attitude does not promote good will or self confidence. They will live with this all their lives. I am a sister whose brother "on impulse" did the wrong thing at the wrong time without premeditation. I hope that they hire more people like you. Thank you.
Posted by: Lynn G | Nov 24, 2013 2:25:11 PM