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October 19, 2014

Reviewing Alabama's (somewhat successful) use of sentencing guidelines to reduce prison growth

ImagesAs highlighted in this lengthy local article, headlined "Sentencing reform has slowed, not stopped, inmate growth," sentencing and sentencing reform in Alabama has been a dynamic process that includes sentencing guidelines intended to steer more offenders away from prison. Here are some details:

The state's sentencing structure has a huge impact on the prison population, which is at about 190 percent the capacity it was designed for. A 24-member panel — the Prison Reform Task Force — is working with the Council of State Governments Justice Center to analyze the system and find ways to reduce overcrowding, reduce recidivism and improve public safety.

Andy Barbee, research manager of the CSG's justice center, said Alabama's switch in October 2013 to presumptive guidelines — which judges are required to use unless there's a mitigating or aggravating factor to be considered — has accelerated a downward trend in the number of sentences to prison and the lengths of those sentences. Those guidelines, however, only apply to drug and theft cases.

That trend started in 2006, when voluntary guidelines were made available for judges to use. Judges still had the option to choose existing sentencing laws, but had to acknowledge for the record that voluntary guidelines were considered, Barbee said. The state took those guidelines a step forward when they approved legislation in 2012 that established the presumptive guidelines....

The new guidelines use a point system that weighs factors such as past criminal history and facts of the crime to impose a sentence, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission. The commission is the research arm of the criminal justice system. It's responsible for implementing changes when laws change and making annual recommendations for improvements to the governor, Legislature, chief justice and attorney general.

Wright said the purpose of creating the presumptive guidelines was to provide uniform sentencing practices across Alabama counties, and to make sure the system is fair, effective and encourages community supervision for nonviolent offenders.

But because there are scarce drug rehabilitation and mental health resources and those vary county by county, more structured and uniform assessments of those in the criminal justice system need to be in place to make sure services are effective. "At some point, the state will have to make a bigger investment in community services and supervision programming," Wright said. "Matching offenders with the right services lowers the likelihood that they'll commit more crimes."

The presumptive guidelines are binding unless a judge decides to downgrade the sentence based on facts, or unless an aggravating factor that might warrant a harsher sentence is proved, Wright said. Barbee said the switch to presumptive guidelines was a bold move in the right direction that took political courage, but the next step is to make sure the structure in place continues to evolve. He said similar changes need to happen with parole.

Although the number of arrests, sentences to prison and lengths of sentence are decreasing, the prison population is still on the rise. However, the presumptive guidelines are projected to slow the tremendous growth that the prison population would have seen otherwise, Wright said. "The presumptive guidelines are not going to drastically lower the prison population," Wright said. "It would be a modest reduction at best, but more than likely, it would result in a stabilization. The point is, if you didn't have them, the prison population would just grow, grow, grow."

Much of the current prison population was punished under a set of laws that provided more serious punishments to a larger class of offenses, Barbee said. "Simply waiting on the guidelines to have an effect won't get the system where it wants to be until many years out," Barbee said. "Therefore it's critical, if the state wants to have a near-term impact on the crisis level of overcrowding, it looks beyond sentencing."

Barbee said there are some caveats with the state's sentencing guidelines. Burglary is considered a violent crime, regardless of whether anyone else was involved during the burglary.... He also said Alabama has one of the lowest felony theft thresholds in the country at $500. The threshold was recently raised from $250, he said, and most states are at about $1,000 or $2,000.

The fact that the state's laws don't consider weight or amount when it comes to drug crimes also makes it more likely that punishment might not match the crime. He said any amount of drug possession other than marijuana — whether it's one pill or a pound of cocaine — is a felony.

October 19, 2014 at 10:54 AM | Permalink

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Comments

This is particularly interesting given Judge William Pryor, one of the more recent additions to the United States Sentencing Commission (and arguably also one of the more conservative members), was instrumental in creating the Alabama Sentencing Commission when he was that state's Attorney General. This is one of the reasons I called Judge Pryor, and the USSC more generally, a "reformer," but it appears there is more work to be done. See Todd Haugh, The Reform Commission, 26 FEDERAL SENTENCING REPORTER 258 (2014).

Posted by: TJH | Oct 20, 2014 2:37:25 PM

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