Injustice for all?

Published 9:22 am Monday, March 14, 2011

Legislation supported by Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith concerned with the future financial status of the already strapped county.

Smith voiced grave concern Friday over legislative proposals planned to go before Alabama legislators that would change the state’s drug laws and add a new Class D felony classification, weeding out the “non-violent” offenders from state prisons. He said it has all come about because the state is in a “financial crisis.”

“This is not about justice, this is all about money; saving the State of Alabama money,” Smith said. “It’s not about trying to help people get off drugs. It’s all about getting people out of the prison system because the state is in a financial crisis.”

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The seasoned sheriff added that the proposals come during a time of financial uncertainty not only statewide, but also throughout the nation.

“In a time when we are struggling to keep our head above water in dealing with drug offenses, I don’t think that the approach is going to be fruitful,” he said. “If anything what we need to do is use jail as the whip so to speak and getting out of jail as the carrot. People have no reason to function well at rehab if they know there is no penalty at the end of the day. In other words, if you go to rehab and skate through it, why try? They can’t stop using drugs because they want to; they have to get off drugs because they have to. It’s not easy to quit.”

Cobb, who spoke to a joint session of the legislature Tuesday afternoon in Montgomery, shared recommendations from the Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition’s extensive consensus report. The group, which was formed in 2010, includes legislators, judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles and Sentencing Commission and law enforcement.

Among the recommendations, which the coalition projects would save taxpayers an estimated $106 million in prison operation costs, is to “concentrate” prison resources on violent and career criminals, focus probation and parole supervision on the highest-risk offenders and offer new strategies to reduce recidivism and hold offenders accountable.

“Let me be absolutely clear: we must lock up violent and serious offenders for lengthy sentences so they cannot continue to harm innocent people,” Chief Justice Cobb said. “However, where nonviolent offenders are concerned, there is an alternative to the costly cycle of crime, incarceration and re-offending.”

The coalition’s proposal is projected to reduce Alabama’s prison population by almost 5,000 inmates over the next five years in addition to saving millions, according to the report.

A bill supported by State Rep. Bill Poole (R-Tuscaloosa) would “release” individuals convicted of an offense from custody of the Department of Corrections and placed under the jurisdiction and supervision of the Board of Pardons and Paroles on the later of the following dates, as determined by the actual calendar time the inmate has served:

• If the individual has served more than 365 days of a sentence that is less than 545 days, the 366th day of his or her sentence;

• If the individual has served a minimum of 545 days, 180 days prior to the end of his or her sentence date as determined by the Department of Corrections;

• If, on the effective date of this act, an individual has served more than 365 days of a sentence that is 545 days or less, has served more than 545 days of a sentence that is 725 days or less, or has served more than 545 days under subdivision (2) and the end of his or her sentence as determined by the Department of Corrections is less than 180 days after the effective date of this act, on the effective date of this act.

Among other things, the bill calls for the Board to assist the inmate in securing or locating the following requisites for a successful reentry into the community:

• appropriate housing;

•  employment, if the individual is capable of holding employment;

• any necessary social service programs;

• any program or educational program, which will equip the individual with skills necessary to ensure the successful reentry into the community, including, but not limited to, appropriate substance abuse treatment and counseling

Smith believes that the legislation is flawed. He believes all it will do is “transfer” the prison population and costs of housing inmates from the state to counties. And with the Escambia County Correctional Facility in Brewton already “busting at the seams” Smith said there is not much more room for the county to house inmates.

“If all of this legislation passes, they won’t be going to prison, they will be going to county jail so that the counties go bankrupt; and then I don’t know what will happen,” he said. “We will all be under federal court order because we can’t house them lawfully and provide the type of environment that the federal law requires us to have for inmates.”

Smith said the county jail on average houses 180 inmates with those numbers “occasionally” dropping down to around 160 inmates. He said max capacity is around 200.

The coalition has also endorsed legislative proposals that would, among other things:

• create a new Class D felony classification and the reclassify certain drug and property offenses as Class D felonies;

• revising the valuation threshold for property offenses;

• restructure and reclassify offenses involving marijuana and controlled substances;

• establish a compliance incentive credit for probationers who comply with the conditions of probation so probation officers may focus limited resources on probationers who need more intense supervision.

• mandate re-entry supervision for offenders incarcerated with DOC and near the end of their sentence; and

• amend Alabama’s driver’s license suspension law to remove certain drug-related offenses to assist participants in drug court and other rehabilitative programs in mobility.

In the proposal, Class D offenders would face a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of three years, according to the report. In addition, Class D felonies would not be used for purposes of enhancement under the Habitual Felony Offender Act calculation.

“It’s just a misdemeanor on steroids,” Smith, who stated that a majority of the cases would be for “possession,” said.

Smith said someone who is sentenced to three years under the proposed Class D felony classification would more than likely serve one year and be released on probation by the Board of Pardons and Parole. And with a statewide recidivism rate in Alabama of 74 percent, he believes many will end up back behind bars.

“If we let people out, they are going to recommit and come right back,” Smith said. “Drug rehab has to be mandated and they have to be in a controlled environment and have to be compelled to have any hope of success.”

A slap on the hand or some time in the local jail is not what will compel criminals to get clean, Smith said.

“That’s not going to be much of an incentive for me,” he said. “If I know that I’m going to have to go to prison, that is an incentive. I think that backing off the use of the jailhouse to make these people comply and try to succeed in drug court, community corrections and other programs we have out there is going to be disastrous. I do not agree with the proposals at all.”

Smith added that the proposed legislation would take the sentencing out of the hands of judges.

“It’s disturbing to me that almost everybody that gets arrested is going to be put on probation and the ability for them to be revoked and sent to the penitentiary is going to be extremely difficult, if not impossible,” Smith said. “The judges hands are going to be tied. If these bills pass and Sue Bell Cobb has her way and some of the other bills go through, the judge is not going to able to send anybody to the penitentiary except in rare circumstances.”

Smith said only those offenders who “destroy” or “steal” would be sent to prison under the proposed laws.

Atmore is home to three prisons: Holman Correctional Facility, Fountain/J.O Davis Correctional Facility and Atmore Work Release. The Century Correctional Institution in Escambia County, Fla. is only 17 miles from Atmore.

It is expected that the proposed bills will be presented to the legislature in the next two weeks.