The St. Clair Times

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October 22, 2014

Our view: Re-thinking punishment for non-violent crime is a no-brainer

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Posted: Thursday, August 15, 2013 12:00 am | Updated: 2:53 pm, Wed Jun 11, 2014.

If U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder and members of Alabama’s Republican controlled legislature are in agreement on something, it must be a really good idea.

That’s why we hope the initiatives by both will be successful in taming prison populations in both the federal prison system and in state prisons.

According to a report recently released by Bureau of Justice Statistics, both the federal prison system and Alabama state prisons have seen an increase in their number of inmates, bucking the national trend of decline.

Both are also over capacity. Alabama has incarcerated more than twice as many people as its prisons were designed to hold. That’s 31,000 inmates, with a system designed to house 14,000.

Overcrowding isn’t the only problem seen in the system. Investigations of sexual harassment in the state’s prison for women are ongoing, several state guards are facing prison in the beating death of an inmate, and just this weekend a state inmate died after being stabbed in prison.

Holder said federal prisons are about forty percent above capacity, having seen growth in the incarceration rate of almost 800 percent since 1980.

Statistics showed Alabama’s per capita rate of incarceration to be the third highest in the nation, behind Louisiana and Mississippi. Alabama added about 650 new inmates per 100,000 people in 2012. Louisiana’s ratio was 893 per 100,000. Other southern states making the top ten were Georgia and number 7 and Florida at number 8.

Alabama passed a pretrial diversion law that will provide drug courts and rehabilitation as alternatives to prison for non-violent offenders.

People arrested on non-violent drug charges will be among those affected.

Holder wants to do much the same things, with people convicted of low-level drug offenses sent to treatment and community service programs. He also wants to expand a program allowing for the release of some of the elderly non-violent offenders now serving time.

Several states have already benefited from similar program, including Texas, which reduced its prison population by more than 5,000 last year.

Part of the problem has been the "War on Drugs" bandwagon, which has been popular with politicians for decades. The get-tough, throw-away-the-key rhetoric allowed penalties to be piled on so much over the years that we’re being forced to have a new discussion over better solutions.

Even the profoundly conservative Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., backs Holder’s proposals. He said he is encouraged by the Obama administration’s view that mandatory minimum sentences for non-violent offenders promote injustice and do not serve public safety. But Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, sees it differently. Grassley complained of the administration’s overreach in decided which laws to enforce and which to ignore after they were passed by the people’s representatives.

In Alabama, new sentencing guidelines were approved, but the Alabama District Attorneys Association and the lobbying group Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) aren’t pleased. They are pushing for more input from crime victims in deciding on sentencing, and for the ability to use the threat of prison as a means to obtaining plea deals and avoiding the time and expense of having trials. They want to revisit the law with legislators, and we think that’s a good thing.

Our justice system doesn’t claim to be perfect, and it’s only through continual refinement that it can be improved. Locking up dangerous criminals to protect the public is a no-brainer. Continuing the conversation about what to do with non-violent criminals is the right thing to do.

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