History of the Alabama Sentencing Commission and Timeline of Events Leading to Its Creation

Creation of the Alabama Sentencing Commission

The history of Alabama’s struggle with jail and prison overcrowding problems and its reluctance to change unless forced to comply with court orders, demonstrate the fact that our State’s criminal justice system is one that has evolved based on short-term political expediency rather than one based on strategic planning with an awareness of long-term consequences. For two decades, jails and prison officials have been operating by crisis management, with little or no help from other participants in the criminal justice arena. Although commissions and committees have been established to help resolve the crisis of the moment, all were formed on a temporary basis and most focused on one aspect – the end result of a systemic problem, prison and jail overcrowding. When system-wide analysis was undertaken and long-range recommendations made for the reform of Alabama’s criminal justice system, there has been an obvious lack of follow-through for effective implementation.

By establishing a permanent State Sentencing Commission, the Alabama Legislature has recognized that our criminal justice system deserves continuous evaluation, planning and management from arrest, through prosecution, sentencing, punishment and the reintegration of offenders after the completion of their sentence. There will be no quick fix to resolve the problems that have developed over two decades, but with a cooperative effort and through strategic planning, Alabama can establish a criminal justice system that is fair, effective, efficient, responsible and responsive to the public.

Precursor to the Alabama Sentencing Commission: The Judicial Study Commission’s Sentencing Committee

On January 23, 1998, the Judicial Study Commission (JSC), under the chairmanship of Chief Justice Perry Hooper, Sr., created a special committee to study sentencing policies and practices in Alabama. This committee, charged with identifying and studying the strengths and weaknesses of Alabama’s entire criminal sentencing system, met bi-monthly during calendar year 1998. During this time, they reviewed each area of Alabama’s criminal sentencing structure, as well as other state and federal sentencing models. In conducting its investigation, the committee heard from local, state, and national experts on current sentencing practices and reform efforts. This broad-based group of criminal justice system officials (judges, defense lawyers, prosecutors, corrections officials, district attorneys, and law enforcement leaders) and victims’ rights advocates, concluded that significant problems exist within the current sentencing and corrections structure in Alabama that demand immediate attention. As a result of their study, the JSC Sentencing Committee recommended the creation of the Alabama Sentencing Commission as a separate state agency, to serve as a permanent research arm of the criminal justice system responsible for acquiring, analyzing and reporting necessary information to officials and state agencies involved in the sentencing process, the Legislature and the public. [1]

Formation of the Alabama Sentencing Commission

Pursuant to the Judicial Study Commission’s recommendations, the Alabama Legislature passed Act 2000-596, creating a permanent Sentencing Commission as a separate state agency under the Alabama Supreme Court. The enabling legislation for the Alabama Sentencing Commission enumerates the Commission’s responsibilities to: (1) “serve as a clearinghouse for the collection, preparation, and dissemination of information on sentencing practices;” (2) “make recommendations to the Governor, Legislature, Attorney General, and Judicial Study Commission concerning the enactment of laws relating to criminal offenses, sentencing, and correctional and probation matters” and (3) “Review the overcrowding problem in county jails, with particular emphasis on funding for the county jails and the proper removal of state prisoners from county jails pursuant to state law and state and federal court orders, and to make recommendations for resolution of these issues to the Governor, Legislature, Attorney General, and the Judicial System Study Commission before the 2002 Regular Legislative Session.”[2]

The Act provides that all changes proposed by the Commission should reflect the following guiding principles of Alabama’s sentencing philosophy:

  1. "Secure the public safety of the state by providing a swift and sure response to the commission of crime".
  2. "Establish an effective, fair and efficient sentencing system for Alabama adult and juvenile criminal offenders which provides certainty in sentencing, maintains judicial discretion and sufficient flexibility to permit individualized sentencing as warranted by mitigating or aggravating factors, and avoids unwarranted sentencing disparities among defendants with like criminal records who have been found guilty of similar criminal conduct. Where there is disparity, it should be rational and not related, for example, to geography, race, or judicial assignment."
  3. "Promote truth in sentencing, in order that parties involved in a criminal case and the criminal justice process are aware of the nature and length of the sentence and its basis."
  4. "Prevent prison overcrowding and the premature release of prisoners."
  5. "Provide judges with flexibility in sentencing options and meaningful discretion in the imposition of sentences.”
  6. "Enhance the availability and use of a wider array of sentencing options in appropriate cases."
  7. "Limit the discretion of district attorneys in determining the charge or crime."

In recognition of these seven ideals, the Sentencing Commission’s enabling Act further provides that sentences should be the least restrictive, while consistent with the protection of the public and gravity of the crime, and the Commission should consider sentencing laws and practices that will promote respect for the law, provide just and adequate punishment for the offense, protect the public, deter criminal conduct, and promote the rehabilitation of offenders.

From May 17, 2000 through January 2001, Judge Joseph Colquitt, retired circuit judge and law professor, was appointed to chair the Commission and members were appointed to serve on the Commission, Executive Committee and Advisory Council.

Although the Sentencing Commission was created by the Legislature in May of 2001, there were no state appropriations provided to fund this new agency; however, the work of the Commission was able to proceed due to a federal grant obtained by the Administrative Office of the Court. With the assistance of the Vera Institute of Justice, and utilizing staff support from the Administrative Office of Courts and Attorney General’s office, the Commission continued to meet during the remainder of the year, consulting with nationally recognized criminal justice professionals and reviewing sentencing reform practices in other states which have addressed similar issues that Alabama is now facing.

The Alabama Sentencing Commission Begins Its Work

Due to the change in administration of the appointing authority, a director for the Sentencing Commission was not appointed, nor staff or office facilities acquired until after Chief Justice Roy Moore assumed office in January 2001. The Commission has now been operational for almost ten months, has two staff members, a director and an administrative assistant, and has been provided office space in the Judicial Building by the judges of the Court of Criminal Appeals.

During 2001, the Sentencing Commission met 8 times, authorizing the formation of six work groups composed of commission members, criminal justice professionals and victim advocates, charged with the tasks of gathering research data and information concerning national and statewide sentencing practices and procedures, identifying the deficiencies in Alabama existing sentencing system and making recommendations for improvement in the areas of technology, structured sentencing, truth-in-sentencing, mandatory minimum and enhanced punishment statutes, community based punishment programs and juvenile offenders. Identifying the lack of reliable data as a major obstacle to the study of current practices and recommendations for sentencing reform, early in the process the Technology work group recommended obtaining the services of a consultant to provide current statewide sentencing trends until an in-house relational database analysis capability could be developed. Based on this recommendation, the Sentencing Commission contracted with Applied Research Services, Inc., a data analysis and research firm, to create a comprehensive statewide database consisting of a three-year cohort of felony offenders by combining information obtained from the databases of the Administrative Office of Courts, Pardons and Paroles, Department of Corrections and Alabama’s Criminal Justice Information Center.

The work groups and subcommittees met 25 times since March of 2001, with each group following a problem process analysis approach building upon previous findings and recommendations of the Judicial Study Commission’s Sentencing Subcommittee. The methods utilized to bridge the gap between where Alabama is now and where it should be based on the Commission’s goals varied depending on how to secure the best information possible. They ranged from out-of-state fact finding visits, open group discussions, surveys, intense multi-group efforts by criminal justice professionals (judges, district attorneys, defense attorneys, probation and parole, etc.), as well as intrastate agency collaboration with other state agencies and victims of crime. The efforts of the work groups culminated in submission of their reports to the Commission at its meeting on September 21, 2001, following which, their findings and recommendations were reviewed and discussed extensively by the Commission on October 18th and 19th, November 30th, 2001, and December 4, 2002, forming the basis for this report.

[1] Currently, more than 20 states have established sentencing commissions to study their sentencing structure. These commissions, while varying in composition and authority, are generally permanent in nature.
[2] In response to federal and state lawsuits concerning the overcrowded conditions of county jails due to the backlog of state prisoners awaiting transfer to the Department of Corrections, in May of 2001, Governor Siegelman established a Task Force to provide short-term solutions to the jail and prison-overcrowding crisis. Recognizing that implementation of their recommendations would provide only a temporary solution to a systemic problem, in its report, the Governor’s Task Force noted that it was relying on the Alabama Sentencing Commission to propose long-term solutions to address the continued issue of prison overcrowding. The Task Force also recognized that a major component of the Commission’s work includes plans to develop the capability to more accurately predict the consequences of new laws on the State’s corrections system in order to improve resource planning and management, and that by developing this capacity, the Sentencing Commission will be able to help the state avoid further prison crisis in the future. Governor Siegelman established as one of his goals the opening of 2,000 new beds within the next five to six years depending on the data collected by the Commission. In this regard, the Governor stated that, "(T)he Sentencing Commission should be charged with determining the impact of its recommendations on the population and report to the Legislature one year after its original recommendations are implemented,” and following its recommendations to the Legislature in 2002, “should be charged with issuing a follow-up report recommending the number of additional beds necessary to operate before the 2003 legislative session."