Sheriff: Prison bills flawed

Published 11:01 am Monday, March 14, 2011

A set of bills that would add a new Class D felony classification and release certain non-violent offenders from state prisons is misguided, Escambia County Sheriff Grover Smith said.

“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.”

The proposals, endorsed last week by Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, come during a time of financial uncertainty, Smith said.

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“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,” Smith 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.

“Let me be absolutely clear: We must lock up violent and serious offenders for lengthy sentences so they cannot continue to harm innocent people,” 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 introduced Thursday 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.

Smith said he believes the legislation is flawed and will “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.

Under the Class D legislation, offenders would face a minimum sentence of one year and a maximum of three years, and 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,” said Smith, who noted that a majority of the cases would be for “possession.”

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, Smith said 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 a 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 them 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, a 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.