Sentencing Reform Necessary

Decatur Daily Editorial

THE ISSUE In Alabama, we’re torn between the desire to be tough on crime and the reluctance to pay the price for an adequate corrections system. Sentencing reform legislation that took effect recently was an implicit recognition the state can’t afford the penalties it wants to impose.

On Jan. 30, major sentencing reform legislation took effect in the state. It was one of the most ambitious laws passed by the state Legislature in recent years, and its passage may have owed much to its complexity. The public did not understand the law well enough to oppose it. The law’s net effect, and its goal, was to ease the penalties on nonviolent crimes.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, shepherded the legislation through the Statehouse, and he’s taking a beating now that district attorneys and the public understand what it does.

While the Legislature may need to tweak the law, Ward should not be painted as a villain. What he accomplished was long overdue.

Alabamians want to be tough on crime. Alabamians don’t want to pay taxes. These desires are in direct conflict, and it was up to the Legislature to choose between them.

The reality that Ward and a majority of his colleagues understood is that the status quo was unsustainable. The state prison system houses almost twice as many inmates as it was designed to hold. The most obvious problem with this is it invites an enormously expensive federal takeover.

Less obvious but more important, the state’s crowded prisons turn offenders who made dumb mistakes into hardened criminals. Alabama’s prisons have a revolving door; 40 percent of all admissions to Department of Corrections custody violated the terms of probation or parole. When major crimes take place in the Decatur area, the offender invariably has served time in prison before.

In other words, the “hard on crime” approach is not working. We can’t afford to keep every offender in prison for life, and the cruel conditions in our crowded, understaffed prisons undermine any chance of rehabilitation. The offenders become victims of the state’s neglect, and they in turn frequently victimize others upon their release.

By diverting many offenders who commit nonviolent crimes away from prison and into probation, the Legislature hopes to reduce prison crowding, prevent a federal takeover and break the repeat-offender cycle.

One of the primary concerns raised by district attorneys across the state, including Morgan County DA Scott Anderson, is that the state has not committed enough funding to hiring the new probation officers necessary to implement the reforms. Supervision of criminals who are not placed in prison needs to be intense, and DAs worry probation officers have caseloads that do not permit them to do their jobs effectively.

While Corrections Department officials say more probation officers are being hired, the Legislature needs to monitor the issue closely. A good law will become a disaster if the probation system is not robust.

It’s convenient for the public and for local DAs to be able to send offenders to a remote prison and forget about them for a few years. For nonviolent offenders, however, that solution makes things worse. Unless Alabamians were willing to pay more in taxes to expand prison capacity, sentencing reform was necessary.

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