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October 31, 2005 - Associated Press (US)

Study Backs Growing Move For Sentencing Reform For Drug Offenders

By Samira Jafari, AP

Return to Drug War News: Don't Miss Archive

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- Drug offenses account for about a third of prison admissions in Alabama and addicts are driving prison overcrowding as repeat offenders, according to a recent prison study released Monday.

It supports a growing push by sentencing experts to divert nonviolent drug offenders from prison cellblocks, which have become chronically overcrowded in Alabama, to community corrections and substance abuse programs.

The report was compiled by analysts at Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Justice Strategies and commissioned by the Drug Policy Alliance, which has studied Alabama prisons since 2003.

State Rep. Locy Baker, D-Abbeville, who presented the report with the researchers and prison reform advocates, said the findings reinforce a draft submitted to Gov. Bob Riley this month by his task force on prison overcrowding. It recommended alleviating the inmate population with alternative means of punishment, including transition centers, community corrections and drug treatment programs, among other suggestions.

Baker said the Justice Strategies report will "make the argument a lot stronger" when the Legislature is faced with a series of sentencing reform bills in the 2006 regular session.

Riley has said he would likely try to get the sentencing reform package and some other recommendations passed early in the session, stressing that rehabilitation plans are crucial to solving the prison problem.

The report points out that drug-related offenses made up 3,202, or 31 percent, of the 10,267 prison admissions in 2004 -- nearly twice the number of robbery, murder, rape and manslaughter entries combined, based on figures by the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

The researchers say three out of 10 inmates have received an enhanced sentence under the state's habitual offender law and 1,325 of the 8,259 habitual offenders are drug convicts.

"Addiction is a disease -- not a crime -- so let's treat it that way," said the Rev. Kenneth Glasgow of The Ordinary People Society, a faith-based group that offers drug treatment to repeat offenders.

Between 1999 and 2004, prison admissions for drug and alcohol offenses increased by 674 prisoners, or 21 percent, even though the number of admissions for person offenses was falling by 355 prisoners, or 14 percent.

"Alabama's tough policies are failing to serve the state in terms of crime control," said Judith Greene, a researcher with Justice Strategies.

The report also says Alabama's tough sentencing measures against nonviolent drug offenders have created racial and geographic disparities, a conclusion also supported by the Equal Justice Initiative in a similar study in April.

About 60 percent of Alabama's inmates are black, though blacks represent only 26 percent of the state population. Whites fill just 40 percent of prison beds, but make up 71 percent of the state population.

Research shows that more than half of prisoners locked up for first-degree marijuana possession are black men, while nearly three-fourths of felony DUI offenders are white men. But driving while drunk doesn't even become a felony until the driver has been convicted on DUI four times, and the average sentence is nearly half that for first-degree marijuana possession (8.4 years) -- creating a racial disparity, according to the Equal Justice Initiative.

Alabama's habitual offender law is also behind geographic disparities, with only eight counties -- Russell, Coosa, Chambers, Dallas, Bullock, Pike, Montgomery and Etowah -- accounting for more than a third of prisoners sentenced under the statute, the report says.

Kevin Pranis, a Justice Strategies researcher who co-authored the report with Greene, said the lack of funding for community drug treatment programs in rural counties -- only Montgomery and Etowah have populations of 100,000 or more out of the eight listed -- has left local authorities with "a perverse incentive" to send offenders to state-funded prisons.

Community corrections programs are underfunded as well, the researchers said, noting that the $5.2 million legislators earmarked for the programs this year still fell short of the $5.5 million required.

Researchers say shifting more inmates from state prisons to community corrections save the state space and money. Allowing inmates to work in community-based programs costs the state a third of the $33 spent daily on keeping them behind bars.

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