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Truth is, sentencing reform isn't simple

Mobile Press Register
July 6, 2011

Over the next year, Alabama will try to establish clearer rules for how long criminals must stay behind bars. If it succeeds in enacting a “truth-in-sentencing” law, it would be one of many states to do so in an effort to get tough on crime.

But the Alabama Legislature, when it takes up proposals next spring, will need to consider all the ramifications of injecting certainty into the sentencing process. In a state where prisons are nearing twice their capacity, a truth-in-sentencing law could pack the prisons even more.

Stricter sentencing, though usually popular, will almost certainly force a tradeoff between spending more on prisons and releasing some inmates early. Considering Alabama’s budget constraints, the first option is not really feasible.

The Alabama Sentencing Commission — a panel of judges, lawyers and corrections officials — is charged with crafting a model for legislators to consider.

Fortunately, the commission’s chairman, retired Circuit Judge Joseph Colquitt, understands the complexities of enforcing stricter sentences. He predicts that the commission will lay out a model that will have been examined from all angles, and one that includes several proposals to address concerns by citizens, law enforcement, the courts and the Corrections Department.

Indeed, other states have enacted truth-in-sentencing laws, only to overturn them later. Mississippi, for instance, approved one of the nation’s toughest such laws in 1995 — requiring all felons to serve 85 percent of their sentences — but quietly amended it in 2008 after seeing its catastrophic effects on the penal system. Now, Mississippi allows drug-possession offenders to become eligible for parole after serving 25 percent of their sentences.

Alabama needs to consider its proposals thoroughly so as not to make the same mistake.

One responsible plan to allow nonviolent felony offenders to be released early has been suggested by the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition and Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who is retiring.

Chief Justice Cobb argues for implementing “supervised re-entry” programs that would release offenders a little early — but under a supervised program that prevents them from returning to a life of crime.

Public safety is sure to be uppermost in the minds of legislators as they debate truth-in-sentencing next year. But they’ll need to be realistic and consider the consequences of being tough on crime — or the state will pay a high price later.

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