|Alabama weighs 'truth in sentencing' for convicted felons|
Mobile Press Register
July 4, 2011
MOBILE, Alabama -- One night last year, Carl Demetrius Smith pointed a gun at a Circle K clerk in west Mobile, tried and failed to steal cash, and ran away with an 18-pack of Bud Light, according to prosecutors.
Smith, 43, was out on parole at the time, having served less than half of a 20-year sentence for carjacking — one of about 2,800 people released on parole every year. He’s now back in prison, finishing his time.
In Alabama, it’s usually hard to know how long prison sentences will last. Inmates can shave off years for good behavior or be granted early release.
In a quiet process with far-reaching consequences, the Alabama Sentencing Commission — a panel of judges, lawyers and corrections officials created a decade ago — is working to establish clear rules for how long criminals spend behind bars.
It’s a concept known as truth in sentencing. The plan is due to the Legislature next year.
“The true value of truth in sentencing is certainty,” said retired state Circuit Judge Joseph Colquitt, commission chairman. It’s particularly critical, he said, in cases of violent crimes.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich isn’t on the commission, but sentencing mysteries play out before her most every weekday. She said, “We’re just seeing more and more defendants who are getting jail time and the victim says ‘How much time will they serve?’ and we can’t tell them.”
The idea of guaranteeing prison time has rippled across the country since the 1970s, leading to a range of policies among the states. In most cases, it eliminates early parole and requires offenders to serve a determined percentage of their sentence. No state mandates that all inmates serve 100 percent of their term. In the federal system, all convicts must serve 85 percent.
In 1995, Georgia identified “seven deadly sins” deserving of mandatory sentences. Armed robbery, rape, kidnapping, aggravated sexual battery, aggravated sodomy and aggravated child molestation all carry 10 years in prison for first-time offenders, with no early release. Murder carries a life sentence that requires 25 years in prison before parole.
Anyone convicted for a second time of one of those crimes must be sentenced to life without the possibility of parole.
Mississippi backtracks as costs soar
In Mississippi, lawmakers created one of the harshest systems in the nation in the mid-1990s. It required that all felons, regardless of the crime they committed, serve 85 percent of their sentences.
As a result, Mississippi’s prison population doubled over the next decade to 22,800, and costs nearly tripled to $327 million. In 2008, the state backed off part of the law, reducing mandatory time served for drug possession offenders to 25 percent. About 3,000 inmates were paroled in the next year, saving an estimated $200 million.
Colquitt said that the Alabama commission is having to tread carefully.
Alabama prisons house nearly twice as many inmates — 25,300 — as the system was designed for. Possession and distribution of drugs, robbery and burglary top the crimes that are filling cells.
Under truth in sentencing, sending violent criminals away for longer stints would likely mean shorter sentences for others to make room.
“There’s no reason to do something incorrectly and cause more harm,” said Colquitt, also a professor at the University of Alabama. “If we’re going to deal with truth in sentencing, let’s be truthful.”
An inmate at Holman Correctional Facility in Atmore, Ala. in 2003. Bennet Wright, the Alabama commission’s executive director, said that most states that enacted truth-in-sentencing either built new prisons or already had spare room ready for swelling ranks of inmates.
Wright estimated that building a new prison would cost $80 million to $100 million, which doesn’t include costs to operate it.
He said that the state needs to invest in more post-release supervision to help watch over and rehabilitate newly released inmates.
As it stands now, an inmate who behaves well and is serving time for a less violent crime is more likely to be awarded parole and report to an officer upon release. Those with discipline issues or who are serving time for heinous crimes get no parole, and report to no one when their sentences are done.
“They leave prison with no supervision, which is a little bit counterintuitive,” Wright said.
Parole as a carrot
Parole also gives inmates incentive to follow the rules and participate in group therapy, substance abuse treatment and other rehabilitation, said Cynthia Dillard, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles executive director who also sits on the sentencing commission.
Less than one-third of prisoners released each year are on parole, she said. Others have reached the end of their time or are released on probation as part of a judge’s original order.
The only requirement under state law is that a prisoner serve one-third of his sentence or 10 years, whichever is less, she said.
The parole board instituted its own policy that anyone convicted of a violent crime must serve at least 85 percent or 15 years, whichever is less. For example, a convicted murderer sentenced to 25 years would be up for possible parole in 15 years.
“I don’t think that the people in Alabama are going to be pleased when Alabama goes to true truth-in-sentencing because — with almost 200 percent overcrowding and with legislators who refuse to pass additional taxes — the only way we can have truth-in-sentencing is to prohibit some minor felonies from going to prison at all...and then have very short terms for all other convictions,” she said. “I don’t think victims and I don’t think other people are going to be happy with it — and that’s just a reality.”
Commission faces 2012 deadline
This year’s Legislature refused to drop a 2011 deadline for the sentencing commission to come up with a mandatory prison-time plan. Thus, the plan must go to lawmakers for consideration in next year’s session.
Mobile County Circuit Judge Joseph Johnston, who worked on a committee in 1998 that helped create the sentencing commission, said the intention from the beginning was to establish a truth-in-sentencing system.
Under the system in place now, he said, it’s nearly impossible to know exactly how sentences translate into actual prison time.
He said he disagrees that criminals who commit property crimes like thefts or burglaries should serve less time. They cause considerable economic damage to the community, he said.
With truth in sentencing, he said, judges would impose what sound like shorter terms.
Some judges might not like that “because they like the newspaper headlines” announcing news of harsh punishments, he said.
“It’s just a joke,” he said of the present system. “It’s deceiving the public. They don’t need to be deceived.”