Legislature shouldn’t wait on Supremes

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The Alabama Legislature should act this session to begin resolving the prison issue in our state.

At present, our prisons are bordering 190 percent of capacity. Prisons are funded by Alabama’s General Fund budget, which is projected to be short more than $100 million of current funding levels for the fiscal year 2012-2013

Alabama’s Sentencing Commission, a panel of judges, lawyers and lawmakers, is slated to present a bill to the legislature this year that would create a truth-in-sentencing system. The commission appears to be favoring a tough-on-crime proposal that would have defendants convicted of felonies serve 85 percent of their prison terms.

Few among us have not decried the current sentencing system in which we see people sentenced for long terms and released in a couple of years. How, we wonder, can such a system deter crime?

Alabama ranks sixth in the country in the number of adults in prison or jail, with 1 in 75 behind bars. Nationally, the number is 1 in 100, yet the higher incarceration rate doesn’t appear to have stopped crime. Our prison system now houses 25,600 inmates, and it is estimated that adoption of the proposed 85 percent rule would swell the population to 36,200 by 2015, a mere three-and-a-half years from now.

Clearly, the legislature should not flatly adopt the 85 percent rule unless it is committed to building more prisons, a move our local district attorney believes is necessary. To adopt truth in sentencing guidelines without building new prisons, the state must employ more alternatives to incarceration, like Covington County’s drug court.

And that’s what Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee who also serves on the Sentencing Commission, hopes to do. Ward told the media last week he is crafting legislation that would set a goal of implementing truth-in-sentencing for violent offenses, rather than all felonies, by the year 2020. His legislation, he said, would give the Sentencing Commission authority to lower the sentencing guidelines for nonviolent offenders to free up prison beds and provide more funding for intensive probation and work-release programs.

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled last year that prisons in California, which were at 137.5 percent of capacity (or 52.5 percent less than Alabama’s current capacity rate) were unconstitutional. It is only a matter of time before the federal court system will again be forced to tell our state to do the right thing.

We hope the legislature won’t wait for a directive from the federal courts, but will put measures in place to begin correcting the problem now.