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December 13, 2016

A deep look into Alabama's new sentencing systems and their impacts

6a00d83451574769e2019affbb5974970cBecause our next Attorney General (and perhaps also our next Supreme Court justice) emerged from and still have roots in the Alabama legal system, I thought it timely and valuable to spotlight this lengthy local article about Alabama sentencing reforms headlined "How has prison reform impacted Alabama?" Here are excerpts:

The criminal justice system has historically relied on human judgment for sentencing, but Alabama’s recent criminal justice reforms are attempting to equate human error to a quantifiable number. Crimes now equal a score that effectively decides an offender’s punishment. A similar score sheet labels parolees as high, medium or low risk.

Alabama is a bit of a trendsetter — for better or for worse — on the criminal justice front, said Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission tasked with both implementing the 2013 and 2015 reforms as well as crunching the data. “With the passage of the 2015 reforms, I think you’re seeing Alabama acknowledge for the first time that data driven decisions need to be the driving force of all criminal justice policy,” Wright said. “That’s a huge shift in policy. Obviously that’s not something everybody will jump on board with, but I think it’s important to make decisions, particularly ones that have huge price tags attached to them, to much more of a data driven process.”

The reforms are not without controversy. Attorneys remain critical of the sentencing guidelines, and judges are split on whether or not the score sheets rob them of their ability to adjudicate, but the reforms have shown promising returns in popping the balloon on Alabama’s prison population and the data collected over the next few years could continue to spur progressive criminal reform.

The two-pronged reform began with the implementation of presumptive sentencing guidelines in 2013 that essentially reduced sentencing decisions to a score sheet in an effort to be more selective and consistent about who gets locked away. For drug offenses, eight or more points — perhaps a distribution of marijuana charge (6 points) and a possession with intent to distribute charge (5 points) — will land that person in prison barring mitigating factors. For property crimes, 15 points is required for a prison sentence. Both sheets also add points for prior adult convictions, incarcerations, probation revocations and juvenile delinquencies, but the idea was — and still is — to send fewer non-violent offenders to prison to relieve the burden on a prison system that, at the time the guidelines were implemented, housed nearly twice the inmate population (25,299) than it was designed for (13,318).

The guidelines also made sentencing consistent across the state. A possession of marijuana charge, for instance, no longer relies on the presiding judge’s views of the drug. “Some judges are heavy on possession of marijuana. They detest it and (before the guidelines) would give harsher sentences than other judges would,” said former Montgomery County Circuit Judge William Shashy who retired this past month.

The 2015 prison reform, also known as Senate Bill 67 sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, focused more on fighting the bloated prison system. A new class of felony, Class D, was created for sentencing guidelines to include non-violent offenses such as minor drug possession and third-degree theft. Those crimes now carry the lowest point totals as legislators are more concerned with locking up violent offenders. “They’re focused on felony offenses the Alabama Legislature has deemed non-violent. Mostly drug and property offenses,” Wright said.

If fewer non-violent offenders are going to prison, more are naturally going to parole and probation. The bill accounted for that by injecting funding into the state parole system to hire 100 more parole officers. Darrell Morgan, assistant executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said they have hired 71 additional parole officers as of the end of October. Seventeen more are currently being interviewed, and Morgan said more officers will be added using their general fund in an effort to reduce parole officers’ caseloads. “When this began we were around 200 cases per officer. Our target is to have everybody down to 100 offenders per officer by the end of the fiscal year (Sept. 30),” Morgan said. “That was one of the biggest issues with previous parole boards was we didn’t have the adequate staff. Now that these numbers have increased we’re able to better manage our caseloads and we can manage more people.”...

Montgomery County Deputy District Attorney Ben McGough said the sheets and implementation of Class D felonies have incentivized crime and taken the teeth out of the justice system. “When a defendant looks at their sheet and their score is two and it takes 15 to go to prison, they’re guaranteed from the beginning. You’re not going to prison no matter what happens,” McGough said. “Then they look at the sheet and think, ‘I’ve got 13 points to burn.’ they can look at the sheet, do the math, and think, ‘I can do four more non-violent offenses before the judge even has the option to send me to prison.’ And we’re literally giving them the figures.”

On the defense side, Public Defender’s Office Director Aliya McKee said the sheets reduce her clients to a figure instead of treating each case as a unique situation. “Our clients, from my perspective, get reduced to a number,” McKee said. “I’m somewhat comfortable with that being the starting point, but it’s not the solution. We want the court to see the person behind the charge. The name, not the case number.”...

As judges and attorneys feel their way through the reforms, all eyes are keen to judge what impact reforms have had on key statistics such as prison population, crime rate, parole caseload and recidivism. It’s still too soon to make definitive claims, but Wright said some early data returns are promising. State prison population, for example, has dropped from 25,299 in 2013 (189.9 percent capacity) to 23,318 this year (175 percent). “I think the initial results of the presumptive sentencing standards are promising,” Wright said. There has been a steady decrease in the prison population averaging 80-100 fewer inmates per month.”

State crime rate has also dropped during the period going from nearly 174,000 total crimes in 2013 (about 3,586 crimes per 100,000 people) to just over 162,000 this year, however, that rate was already falling from 191,318 in 2011 and 181,752 in 2012, according to Alabama Law Enforcement Agency.

Parole caseload has also begun to dip slightly. Morgan said it took longer than expected to hire new officers but active caseload is down to about 145 cases per officer. When adding inactive cases, that decline looks much smaller (about 215 per officer to about 195), but Morgan said the reform has had a noticeable impact. “(Adding inactive cases) makes the numbers still look high, but the hiring of the officers have gotten our active caseload down to a manageable level, which is lower than it was. But we still have to hire more people,” Morgan said....

On a local level, one particular statistic has the District Attorney’s Office concerned that the guidelines may be doing more harm than good for public safety. Montgomery has seen 530 more thefts this year than last year, and many in the DA’s office, including Chief Deputy District Attorney Lloria James, see the lenient sentencing guidelines as the blame.

“Those statistics don’t surprise us at all. It’s almost like a revolving door,” James said. “The problem is sort of like word travels fast on a college campus or neighborhood or things like that, in the criminal community word travels fast, and I think it’s gotten out there that pretty much if it’s non-violent — thefts, burglaries things like that — there’s almost zero chance you’re going to see some prison time, so it’s worth it to them.”

Whether or not there is a connection remains up for debate, but that hasn’t stopped District Attorney Daryl Bailey from reaching out to Sen. Ward in recent weeks about possibly making some changes. “We’ll continue looking at it, but we’ve done a lot of reform already,” Ward said. “Obviously that’s a point being made by the district attorneys, but if there's any changes needed to be made in the guidelines we need to do that. We need to make sure it's prudent for the safety of the public.”

The reforms have shown themselves not to be perfect, but Wright said that should engender further study and support in his ideal scenario. The reforms were put in place after studying prison reform in other Republican states such as Texas and North Carolina, but implementing front-to-back change is “trendsetting,” Wright said.

For now, the state must wait and see what the numbers hold. “It’s a little daunting, but that’s trendsetting to have this big of a process going on at one time,” Wright said. “That’s also why I tell people both for it and against it to take a deep breath and let’s do our best to implement it. I think with a lot of things, people get in the way of things before they implement it. We owe it to ourselves to embrace what the Legislature passed and what the intent was. Let’s give it our best good faith effort, wait a while and then sit around the table and talk about it then.”

December 13, 2016 at 09:59 AM | Permalink

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