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October 27, 2013

DA: Less jail time, more trials for nonviolent offenders under new sentencing guidelines

CULLMAN — Many individuals convicted of multiple “non-violent” felonies will no longer face mandatory jail time under new state sentencing guidelines aimed at reducing the inmate prison population.

The guidelines, which went into effect Oct. 1, now require judges and prosecutors to use a worksheet system to calculate whether an offender should be sentenced to state prison or probation and if sentenced to prison, how long the term should be. Those found guilty of non-violent felonies will be assigned a score, and the number of prior felony convictions, including counts, will be calculated into sentencing.

Offenses like theft, forgery, drug crimes, breaking and entering vehicles and receiving stolen property are considered non-violent crimes under the guidelines. Sentencing procedures for felony offenses considered violent crimes like murder, rape, assault and burglary will remain unchanged.

The new standards are aimed at establishing more uniform sentencing across the state, however they have riled prosecutors and judges who feel the changes take away their discretion in punishing those convicted of felony crimes. The Alabama District Attorneys Association has been openly critical of the guidelines and is working on proposed amendments to them.

“Do I like it? No, but it is the law, and we will follow the law,” said Cullman County District Attorney Wilson Blaylock. “We’re going to change to comply with these new guidelines. I’m just not sure everyone will like it, especially if you’re a victim of a crime.”

Blaylock provided a recent example of how the courts would determine the punishment for an individual who was charged with nine counts of breaking and entering a vehicle. Under the new standards, probation would be the recommended sentence, Blaylock said.

“The state’s Class A, B and C felony system is now out the window unless it’s a violent crime,” Blaylock said.

Class A felonies carry a prison sentence between 10 to 99 years, Class B is two to 20 years and Class C is one year and one day to 10 years.

The new guidelines were created by the Alabama Sentencing Commission at the request of the state legislature. First drafted in 2000 and then enacted in 2006 as “voluntary,” the guidelines were used sporadically by judges and prosecutors around the state. They became “presumptive,” or mandatory, at the direction of the legislature.

The sentencing commission point to the state’s costs to house and feed inmates and prison overcrowding as an economic driver of sentencing reform.

State prisons were built to accommodate 14,000 inmates, but they hold 28,000, according to a report by the Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based private, nonprofit organization that provides legal representation to indigent defendants and prisoners. Alabama spends only $26 a day per prisoner while the national average is $62. It also spends the least of any state in the country on medical care for inmates, and  Alabama’s prisons have the highest inmate to correctional officer ratio in the country.

“My number one concern — that I’ve been sworn to uphold — is still going to be seeking justice and ensuring the safety of the citizens of Cullman County. The state prison population is not my number one concern,” Blaylock said.

The sentencing commission also cite inconsistent sentencing depending on jurisdiction as a major factor in the changes.

In Cullman County, a majority of criminal cases — around 90 percent — are settled with plea agreements before trial, Blaylock said. He worries that now there will be a spike in trials because prosecutors have lost leverage and defense attorneys will be compelled to take their clients’ cases to trial, knowing there’s a higher likelihood they will not receive prison time.

If prosecutors want to seek a tougher sentence than the guidelines call for, then they will have to conduct a “mini-trial” and prove to a jury that there are aggravating circumstances that warrant a longer sentence. On the flip side, if a defendant wants to seek a more lenient sentence, they must prove to a judge that mitigating circumstances exist to warrant a shorter sentence.

Blaylock said that while one of the main goals of the standards was to promote “truth in sentencing” — meaning a convicted felon will serve nearly all of or the complete prison sentence — in his experience, the Alabama Department of Corrections adds nonviolent convicted felons on the first available parole docket to move them out of the prison system.

“That’s frustrating. I would feel better about the new standards if someone who was sentenced to prison actually served the time they were given. I just don’t think that’s going to happen because of the situation with the inmate population.”

* Tiffeny Owens can be reached by email at towens@cullmantimes.com or by phone at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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