Do a crime, but not the time?
Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 16, 2016
Do a crime in Alabama and you could get no jail time.
Local law enforcement, attorneys and judges gathered Thursday afternoon to learn more about sentencing regulations dictated by the Alabama Justice Reinvestment Act of 2015.
Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, and Meridith Barnes, general counsel for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, discussed implementation of the act.
The ultimate goal is to keep non-violent offenders from taking up space in state prisons, while helping curb the number of repeat offenders by holding them more accountable through community supervision.
The biggest change is the creation of Class D felonies.
Previously, non-violent offenders received prison sentences, which caused extreme prison overcrowding and more repeat offenders.
The state’s prisons currently are estimated to be at 221 percent capacity with 29,481 inmates housed in facilities designed for 13,318 inmates.
Wright said that under the new guidelines, non-violent offenders could receive penalties that range from one to five years, but with split sentences.
A split sentence is when a sentence is split into two parts and the first is served by incarceration and the second probation.
Offenders convicted of class D felonies will now have a two-year confinement cap and a three-year probation cap. However, the confinement portion of the split will be done through community correction or intensive probation supervision through pardons and paroles.
“If they don’t get probation, drug court or pretrial diversion, they have to get a split sentence,” Wright said.
Wright said the goal is for inmates not to end their sentence in prison to have better accountability.
That means that the majority of non-violent offenders will now be supervised through community corrections programs or through pardons and paroles.
Locally, there are no community corrections programs.
However, Barnes said that the county could set up a financial agreement with another community correction program, if they did not want to set up their own.
District Attorney Walt Merrell said there are two ways to set up a community correction program – through the county commission or through a non-profit agency.
“I haven’t approached the county commission,” he said. “I do know the state won’t give you any money for start up costs.”
Merrell said that the Department of Corrections will give $10 per day for DOC cases, but they are not reimbursing for other cases.
Merrell said it costs the state $41 a day to house an inmate.
“You might could put a roof over their heads (with $10 a day),” he said. “But you couldn’t have any programming and no recidivism training to equip people with the tools they need.”
What exactly are considered Class D felonies?
• First-degree possession of marijuana, if it’s for personal use. If not for personal use, it’s considered a Class C felony, i.e., for distribution.
In Alabama, marijuana for personal use only is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by a maximum sentence of one year in prison and a fine of $6,000. However, if the offender has been previously convicted of marijuana possession for personal use, a second offense became a Class C felony. Now, the second offense is a Class D felony.
• Unlawful possession of a controlled substance. It was previously a Class C felony.
• Theft of property III. (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Theft of services III (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Receiving stolen property III (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Theft of lost property III (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Criminal possession of a forged instrument (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Forgery III (Previously a Class A misdemeanor)
• Illegal possession/fraudulent use of credit/debit card (Previously a Class C felony)
Merrell said he thinks that the new guidelines will be the death of drug court, a program that allows drug users to participate in recovery programs, while holding them accountable for their sobriety.
“Drug offenders know they have four strikes,” he said. “Drug addicts don’t necessarily fear felonies, but they do incarceration.”
Merrell said with drug court participants know that they are guaranteed no incarceration as long as they do what the judge orders.
“Now that incentive is gone,” he said.
Under the new guidelines, there is no waiver for probation.
Additionally, Circuit Judge Lex Short said he think that it will cut down on the number of plea deals and increase the number of jury trials.
Sheriff Dennis Meek said he and other member of the sheriff’s association aren’t too happy with the new plan, and he’s not optimistic it will work.
“We will have to wait and see how it works,” he said. “I don’t think anybody really has an idea of what is going to happen. There’s no way that anyone can know what the whole bill says. When it’s 142 pages long, that’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever seen. I’m sure down the road there will probably be several amendments. We have to play along with it right now because it’s the law.”