The new law, passed in the Legislature as Senate Bill 386, gives the Alabama Sentencing Commission power to adjust the length of prison terms served by people convicted of crimes. Beginning in October 2013, SB386 will require legislators to automatically approve recommendations made by the commission, unless the Legislature specifically rejects individual changes.
“It slows the prison population growth, and eventually – over time – it will decline,” bill sponsor Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said of the legislation’s intended effects.
Alabama has the most crowded prison system in the country, according to Sentencing Commission statistics. The state’s prisons hold nearly 27,000 inmates but were built for only 13,400.
Since the Legislature created it 12 years ago, the commission has studied Alabama’s sentencing practices and prison crowding and, in light of that research, made recommendations to lawmakers and judges about the lengths of prison terms.
But until SB386, officials said, the commission’s effectiveness was hamstrung by the Legislature, which could easily override any of its proposals.
That meant judges didn’t have to closely follow any of the commission’s advice, said Bennet Wright, executive director for the Sentencing Commission.
“The new law is the reverse of what there is right now,” he said.
Next year, for example, if the Sentencing Commission recommends shortening the time defendants serve in prison on drug and low-end property crimes, those recommendations must be passed into law – meaning it is mandatory for judges to follow them. If lawmakers want to block one or some of those proposals, SB386 states they’ll have to draw up specific legislation to do so.
“It will ultimately lead to fewer non-violent offenders being in prison,” Wright said.
That’s because Wright and his peers on the Sentencing Commission will primarily focus on reducing the incarceration time for non-violent offenders – people who are convicted of or plead guilty to drug and property crimes.
By cutting down on the number of non-violent offenders who go to prison –- as well as slashing the sentence lengths for those who do go to prison –- the commission hopes to ensure there’s space in correctional facilities for violent offenders who shouldn’t be released into society.
Department of Correction statistics show that the prison population grows by 300 to 400 new inmates each year, even with the 12,000 people per year who are released. Legislators hope to see that growth begin to slow as early as next year thanks to the new law, with a substantial decline in the amount of people entering prison by 2015.
The goal is to create enough room in state prisons for truth-in-sentencing standards to be passed by 2020, Ward said. Truth in sentencing refers to legislative guidelines that ensure criminals actually serve out the sentences handed down by the judge, rather than getting out of prison early.
That’s become a major concern for law enforcers, because the number of offenders released early from prison —- through parole, split sentences or for a 30-year-old “good time” law that grants most non-violent offenders early release as long as they don’t break prison rules —- has grown every year since 1980, statistics show.
Still, truth-in-sentencing guidelines are difficult to enact in a state that has little money and no space in its prisons, officials said. Wright said that’s because those kinds of guidelines typically increase the prison populations for states that have them.
The Legislature came into session with a mandate, established by state law, to pass a truth-in-sentencing measure during the most recent. SB386 delayed that until 2020.
By then, the commission hopes to have passed many of its sentencing changes and made room in state prisons for truth in sentencing to become a reality.
“As you shrink your population over time for non-violent offenders, then you can make it a situation for violent offenders to stay in there longer,” Ward said. “Your goal is protect to the public.”
Star Staff Writer Cameron Steele: 256-235-3562. On Twitter @Csteele_star.