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Alabama's habitual offender laws filling state prisons


Montgomery Advertiser
Samira Jafari
January 3, 2011

Nearly a third of the inmates serving time in Alabama's overcrowded prisons were sentenced under the state's habitual offender law, deemed one of the harshest in the nation by sentencing experts.

Unlike most states, Alabama's repeat offender law -- often known as the three-strikes-and-you're-out law -- does not figure in the length of time between convictions or the severity of prior offenses.

More than half of the nearly 8,600 habitual offenders were given tougher or "enhanced" sentences after their latest conviction was for property or drug crimes, according to the Alabama Sentencing Commission's preliminary 2006 report. That doesn't mean they didn't commit a violent crime in the past; but in most cases the law doesn't give any weight to the prior offense.

"Alabama does have one of the most stringent habitual felony offender acts," said Lynda Flynt, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

Tomislav Kovandzic, a criminal justice professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said this has created a problem in corrections.

The habitual offender laws in general don't cut down on crime but do result in prison systems that are "busting at the seams" and increasingly demand larger chunks of state budgets, he said. The majority of states that have such laws introduced them in the 1980s and 1990s, when the nation adopted a "tough on crime" motto, he said.

"These laws don't do anything in reducing crime," said Kovandzic, who has researched three-strikes laws. "They're keeping people in prison and they're seeing the repercussions in an aging prison system that's costing them a fortune."

Habitual offenders are inherently one of the most expensive populations in Alabama's prison system due to the population aging over lengthy or lifelong sentences. They cost the prison system $112 million dollars a year -- or 36 percent of the fiscal 2006 budget. That takes a toll on the underfunded, understaffed, dated prison system that's at double designed capacity with more than 27,000 inmates.

"We can be as tough on crime as we're willing to pay for," said professor Greg Weaver, director of the sociology, criminology and criminal justice programs at Auburn University. "That's part of the politics of the matter."

Kovandzic agreed. "It's not politically feasible to say 'OK, we're going to let everyone out,'" he said.

The chairman of the Joint Prisons Committee, Sen. Myron Penn, D-Union Springs, said habitual offender laws are popular because people want to feel comfortable about convicts being kept off the streets and politicians want to preserve their tough stance on crime. But, he added, the number of inmates coming in eventually outpaces the number going out. "It's easy to have the hard-core image of locking them up and throwing away the key," Penn said. "But it is costly to the overall problem for overcrowding."

Alabama is among 16 states that provide for life imprisonment upon conviction for one prior felony, according to a 2005 state-by-state comparison of habitual offender laws by the Alabama Sentencing Commission. For example, a person with two forgery convictions can be sentenced to life in prison.

"If you have three nonviolent crimes, you could still get the same sentence as someone who has committed three violent crimes," said Brian Corbett, spokesman for the prison system.

For example, a convict with prior convictions for manslaughter and rape still might get the same sentence as a three-time forgery convict.

"To me, that's not fair," Flynt said.

If the most recent crime is a Class A felony, such as murder, kidnapping or first-degree rape, the previous crimes are reviewed in determining any "enhanced" sentence. But in all other cases, the severity of the earlier crimes is not considered.

Alabama also has the highest "range of enhancement," allowing judges to add an additional 15-99 years or life imprisonment to a repeat offender's sentence. South Carolina has the lowest range, with 1-5 years. Kovandzic said giving judges more discretion is not necessarily a bad thing, because it still gives them the option to add fewer years when determining enhanced sentences for nonviolent crimes.

Eleven states, not including Alabama, have habitual felony offender laws only for certain crimes. Those states, including Southern states Tennessee and Virginia, take into account whether the previous felonies were violent crimes, such as sexual assault, armed robbery and aggravated kidnapping.


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