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April 4, 2005 - The Gadsden Times (AL)

Editorial: Minor Crimes, Major Sentences

Alabama Laws Harsh against Drug Offenders

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Most law-abiding citizens favor state laws that get tough on crime. Alabama gets tougher on people for minor drug violations than most states in the nation.

Only one, Mississippi, offers a longer possible sentence for first-degree marijuana possession.

Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and South Dakota have a possible sentence of 10 years for first-degree possession. In Mississippi, offenders risk more than 10 years, but in 20 states offenders face three to five years for the same offense. In some states, the potential sentence is a year in prison.

A study by the Equal Justice Initiative points to what some perceive as a racial disparity caused by the state's harsh drug laws. More than half the prisoners locked up for first-degree marijuana possession are black men, while nearly three-fourths of felony DUI offenders are white men.

Drunken driving doesn't result in a felony until the driver has been convicted on DUI four times. People face first-degree possession if they have a prior misdemeanor drug conviction, or if they possess more than 2.2 pounds of marijuana.

The average sentence for a felony DUI offender is 4.8 years, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections, while the average sentence for first-degree possession of marijuana is 6.4 years.

Bryan Stevenson, executive director of EJI, said police are more likely to target blacks for drug crimes, and minorities are disproportionately poor, resulting in weaker defense against charges and longer sentences.

An underlying difference in the marijuana sentences and DUI sentences may be the substance being abused by the offender. Alcohol is legal in many Alabama counties; marijuana is outlawed in them all.

But when Stevenson says Alabama is "too harsh in the drug context," he may be right.

Lengthy sentences for a relatively minor drug crime is a contributing factor in Alabama's prison overcrowding situation -- something that has plagued the state for years and despite serious efforts to combat in recent years, remains a problem now.

Even some court officials who don't see the racial disparity Stevenson believes is there recognize the need for courts to look for alternative sentences and treatment programs for people convicted of minor drug crimes.

As attractive as the get-tough approach to sentencing is, the state must get smarter about which offenses earn inmates a long stay behind bars.

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