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Alabama's New Sentencing Standards May Be Helping

By Associated Press

Montgomery AL – Sentencing standards that are expected to help solve some of the state's prison overcrowding problems have now been in use for a year and officials say the early response is encouraging.

Rosa Davis, who is on the Alabama Sentencing Commission's executive committee, said the usage rate of the standards by judges for the first year is about 86 percent, and the goal for the next 12 months is bringing that up to 100 percent.

She said about 10,000 worksheets have been filled out to guide sentencing and described the number as a "strong indication of success."

"I certainly would have liked to have perfect compliance in the first year, but I know there were an awful lot of real logistical problems in learning to use and practice using the worksheets," she said.

The state Legislature passed a bill that established the new guidelines in 2006 after it failed to win approval for two years. The voluntary guidelines give judges more options, which tighten the range of prison time for drug crimes and reduce minimum sentences for property crimes.

Sentences for certain drug felonies can be shortened from a range of one to 10 years to a range of one year to about five and one-half years.

Alabama's prison system was designed to hold 12,714 inmates, but there were 29,148 inmates housed in corrections facilities in August.

Overcrowding was cited as one of the main reasons for the new guidelines, which are expected to help ease some of the congestion in about four years if at least 75 percent of judges agree to use them. The 86 percent usage for the first year surpassed that target.

Davis said steps are being taken to make it 100 percent.

"We're trying to work (the kinks) out on a county by county basis," she said.

Judge Tommy Nail, who presides in the 10th Judicial Circuit in Birmingham, said he uses the guidelines in about 95 percent of cases, but found that his sentences would have normally fallen within the newly recommended ranges anyway.

He said the reaction from other judges has been "mixed."

"Some like them, some don't. It varies from judge to judge," he said. "I think the biggest thing like anything else is change comes slowly in something that's as conservative as the criminal justice system."

"Also, it's a judgment call that can vary depending on the facts of the case, so it really depends to some extent on the individual case," he said.

Commission statistician Bennet Wright said it will be at least another year before enough data is collected for "meaningful analysis" to determine the impact of the guidelines.

"It would be possible to gather data before then, but we wouldn't be really sure that information is both valid and reliable," he said.

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