The bill proposes to downgrade those property offenses from Class C felonies, now punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to what would be Class D felonies, punishable by up to three years in prison.
The legislation, sponsored by state Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, is part of a nine-bill package touted by a bipartisan group of legislators, judges, lawyers and law-enforcement officials as a way to reduce the number of people in state prisons and save millions of dollars in the state budget.
And while local police oppose a key part of that package -– a bill calling for the early release of all nonviolent offenders from state prisons –- they say they are more receptive to Marsh’s proposal and its twin bill in the House.
“I’m mediocre about the (proposed) law; I understand the basic economics of it,” Anniston Sgt. Fred Forsythe said. “Part of it makes sense … but I’m torn about it.”
Local officials: A-OK with Class D
Officials say that -– overall –- they don’t have a problem with the creation of Class D felonies, because they don’t expect a new set of felonies to really change the amount of time convicted thieves or burglars spend in state prisons.
“Whether they’re sentenced to a Class C and are sentenced to 10 years … or Class D and get a three-year sentence, they all have the chance for parole,” Forsythe said.
And most people sentenced in felony property crimes now receive parole right away or get out of prison on probation quickly anyway, he said. Local officials noted this law would allow the sentence to better match the actual time served.
That might free up state prisons to allow people convicted of violent and more serious crimes to receive longer sentences and to prevent those violent offenders from being released on early probation, Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson said.
“My hope is that we’re going to see people who are committing violent crimes to get longer sentences with stronger consequences,” Amerson said.
Marsh’s bill also calls for a distinction between burglary of a dwelling -– a residence, school or church -– and burglary of a building, the latter which would be considered the lesser Class D felony.
“That almost sounds reasonable,” Jacksonville police Chief Tommy Thompson said, referring to the proposed distinction between burglary crimes.
State officials: Why we need Class D
Marsh and Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb said the bill and the entire legislative package aim to reduce the state’s prison population while focusing on violent offenders.
“The new classification will give the courts more discretion on making sure that sentences fit the crime,” Cobb said in an e-mail statement. “It will also help to reserve our prison space for violent offenders who need to be locked up.”
Marsh said he hopes the lower penalties of Class D felonies will encourage judges to seek alternatives to incarceration rather than putting people who commit nonviolent property crimes behind bars.
Those alternatives include diversion programs, such as the Calhoun County Corrections and Rehabilitations Facility, which judges already use as a sentencing method to help drug offenders.
The Alabama Public Safety and Sentencing Coalition is the bipartisan, multi-agency group responsible for creating the sentencing recommendations that culminated in the legislation. A report from that coalition shows that 69 percent of people sentenced to state prison in 2009 were there because of property and drug offenses. Furthermore, 80 percent of the property crimes involved offenders addicted to drugs or alcohol.
“All we’re trying to do is to truly try to find a way to solve these problems, and we’ve got to look at what diversion programs are already working,” Marsh said.
Scott Mitchell, the chief justice’s chief of staff, agreed, also noting that the Class D bill makes it impossible for people who are convicted of Class D felonies to be sent to prison for longer sentences under the habitual offender law. Currently, a person who is convicted of the same property crime more than once faces longer prison terms under a special habitual offender status.
“Say you’ve got a guy who broke into three cars and his sentence is 10 years in prison as a habitual offender,” Mitchell said. “Well, he’s taking up a bed that belongs to a rapist or some other violent offender.”
But local officials have warned against paroling all nonviolent offenders, allowing them to serve time in rehab or other diversion programs for the very same reason that Marsh supports it: Many of them are committing these crimes to feed a drug habit and will continue to do so.
That’s because officials say there’s no strict standard for measuring how well rehab or other diversion programs work – one of local police’s main problems with the bill proposed by Sen. Jerry Fielding, D-Sylacauga, to release all nonviolent offenders from prison early.
“We have to consider those issues,” Amerson said, calling for legislation that addresses how to best rehabilitate and monitor drug users and career criminals behind property crimes. “That’s what’s missing here.”
Local officials: Not OK with increased misdemeanors Officials in Calhoun County, Anniston, Jacksonville and Oxford are also less supportive of aspects of Marsh’s bill that would raise the monetary threshold for misdemeanors, potentially causing the number of misdemeanor crimes and criminals -– all handled by local municipalities’ courts and jails –- to rise.
“The trouble is, yes, the impact on local agencies: If they make some of the felonies misdemeanors, they’d have to stay in our jail if they got sentenced, and we’ve got to foot the bill for feeding them and healthcare and that kind of stuff,” Jacksonville’s Thompson said.
For example, anyone who steals something worth $500 or less currently faces a misdemeanor property theft charge, is required to appear in municipal court and –- if convicted and given jail time –- required to serve a sentence in the city or Calhoun County Jail. Theft of property worth between $500 and $2,500 is currently considered a Class C felony and is handled in circuit court and punished with a sentence in a state prison.
Marsh’s bill and its House counterpart would make it a misdemeanor to steal anything worth $1,000 or less, meaning that what are now felonies would be downgraded to misdemeanors, effectively increasing the local financial responsibility for those offenders.
“It seems like every time the prison system gets overcrowded, they want to change it and throw it back on the municipalities,” Oxford Sgt. L.G. Owens said.
And other law-enforcement officials noted that most local jails are already in bad physical condition and crowded themselves. In recent months, Jacksonville and Anniston officials have discussed building new jails. And the Calhoun County Jail averages between 450 and 480 inmates a day, which is between 50 and 80 more people than the facility was built to house, officials have said.
University of Alabama law professor Joseph Colquitt, a former judge for the state’s 6th Circuit and a member of the coalition that came up with the sentencing recommendations, said that shifting the financial burden from state to local governments is inevitable every time sentencing changes like Marsh’s are on the table.
“There’s always that trade-off, and how to address that, the common answer is more money for the group that’s taking on that burden,” Colquitt said.
But so far the proposed legislation package doen’t provided any funding for local agencies.
“The bill, if it’s passed, is obviously going to restructure how we handle crimes in our state,” Amerson said, “and that’s certainly going to have a big impact locally.”
Contact Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele at 256-235-3562.