The package is attractive now because it could save the state more than $100 million in five years, according to Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb. The new laws would reverse a trend in Alabama (and across the country for that matter) that “gets tough on criminals.” That trend has significantly increased prison populations, which obviously increases costs that must be borne by the taxpayer.
What it has not done is reduce crime rates very much.
It is human nature to favor strict punishment of those who break the law. And through the years our Legislature, bit by bit and law by law, has tinkered with sentencing laws in ways that take discretion out of the judge’s hands and make certain crimes punishable by rigid sentences.
The money that would be saved by these reforms would be put back in the system so that probation and parole officers would have fewer offenders to supervise and could therefore do a better job with the population they now have.
We offer just two of the bills in the package as common-sense alternatives that save money and provide better service to the citizens of the state and the offenders.
One would swiftly punish high-risk probationers who fail to comply with the terms of their release. That same bill would offer incentives for those who do comply with the terms — such as restitution payments for the crimes they committed.
Another would add a new Class D Felony category for low-level property and drug crimes and impose shorter sentences for that new category.
About half of Alabama’s prison population is made up of those found guilty of minor drug offenses or property crimes. The lowest-grade felony now on the books is Class C — which mandates a prison term of 1-10 years. The new Class D category would allow for 1- to 3-year terms for the offense.
There is a long laundry list of other reforms, all recommended by the bi-partisan Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition. The coalition is made up of legislators, prosecutors, judges, law enforcement officers, defense lawyers and members of the state Board of Pardons and Parole and the state Sentencing Commission. These folks work within our current system that is just not working.
It’s easy to dismiss such calls for reform as coddling criminals and not being tough enough on crime. That’s how we got into this mess, where overcrowded prisons become dangerous places for the prisoner, and for the correction officers who work in this high-risk environment.
Justice Cobb said “prison guards are the biggest heroes in state government.” She cited one prison that housed 365 inmates at the time, which had only two correction officers per shift.
In the last 10 years, the cost to the state for our prison system has doubled, to $573 million. At the same time, those who return to prison have jumped from 24 percent in 1997 to 35 percent in 2006. It’s obvious that Alabama’s system needs to change.
This reform package makes sense. Let’s hope the Legislature agrees.