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March 12, 2014

Alabama judges complain about new guidelines that limit their discretion to impose prison terms

Federal practitioners are used to hearing complains from sentencing judges about mandatory sentencing laws (and formerly mandatory guidelines) that require judges to impose lengthy prison sentences in certain cases.  But now in Alabama, as highlighted by this interesting new local article, state sententencing judges are complaining about new sentencing law that prevents them from imposing prison terms in certain cases.  The article is headlined "Judges criticize sentencing guidelines," and here are excerpts:

All three members of Walker County’s Circuit Court were critical of Alabama’s new sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders while visiting with the Rotary Club of Jasper Tuesday.

Presiding Circuit Judge Jerry Selman described the current political climate as “frustrating” for judges because of the guidelines, which took effect in October 2013. “We can no longer put people in jail who steal from us or who sell drugs to our children,” Selman said.

Proponents of the guidelines say that they are needed to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons, which are hovering at 195 percent of capacity. In 2009, federal judges ordered officials in California to reduce the prison population after it had reached 200 percent of capacity.

Selman told Rotarians that he prefers stiff sentences because he believes that the fear of incarceration is a deterrent to crime. As an example of the correlation, Selman shared the impact of a 60 year prison sentence he handed down to a female drug dealer.

He said he felt the sentence was justified because the woman had ruined the lives of multiple children in the black community by offering them marijuana and gradually moving them on to other narcotics. “I had several police officers come to me and say that for at least the first six weeks after that sentence, you couldn’t find a single drug in the black section of Jasper,” Selman said.

Selman added that he expected to see an increase in crime once individuals charged with drug and theft crimes realize the implications of the sentencing guidelines. Word recently reached him that a self-described career thief did not intend to hire a lawyer the next time he made an appearance before Selman because he could no longer receive jail time.

Selman said his opinion is that legislators are “misguided” and are using the guidelines to avoid building more prisons. “They are looking for ways to save money that are not apparent to everyday people. If they quit patching the holes in the highway, it becomes obvious,” Selman said.

Circuit Judge Hoyt Elliott agreed that building prisons would be a more logical solution to the state’s overcrowding problem than limiting the sentencing options available to judges. “The Legislature controls the purse strings. It wouldn’t be an easy thing for them to do, but it could be done. Tax structures could be changed. They are just not going to do it because it’s not politically popular. So they put the burden on us to relieve the overcrowding, and that is not our job to do,” Elliott said.

Circuit Judge Doug Farris said the guidelines will also undercut the incentive to participate in the county’s Drug Court program, which has had over 200 graduates since 2008 and has a success rate of more than 50 percent. “Whatever the Legislature says, I’m going to do, but I think the best way is to give the discretion back to the judges. Sometimes we need to be lenient, and sometimes we need to be strict. Every case is different,” Farris said.

March 12, 2014 at 08:03 PM | Permalink

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“I had several police officers come to me and say that for at least the first six weeks after that sentence, you couldn’t find a single drug in the black section of Jasper,” Selman said.

Yes, until the other drug dealers came in to pick up where the previous drug dealer had left off.

You can lock up all the drug dealers for life, and more will show up. Not much of a deterrent effect here. Not while there is still the potential for a lot of money in the drug trade. Only solution is to decriminalize and tax drugs like alcohol/tobacco.

Posted by: PDB | Mar 13, 2014 11:51:57 AM

Are Alabama sentencing guidelines mandatory?

Whenever someone makes a prediction that some action will lead to an increase in crime, I always want people to study what actually happened and then seek out the individual for comment. Drug distribution, which always seems a lot more economically driven than other crimes, seems like something that will always exist as long as there is a market even if draconian sentences are handed out.

Posted by: Erik M | Mar 16, 2014 2:47:40 PM

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