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Truth in Sentencing: A simple idea faced with complex times

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama Legislature in 2000 began to task the newly created Alabama Sentencing Commission with analyzing the existing sentencing model and to recommend changes that promote “certainty in sentencing.”

Based on the commission’s recommendations in 2003 the Alabama Legislature passed Alabama Sentencing Reform Act of 2003. This broad sweeping reform—according to the legislation—was to “manage [the] criminal justice system in the manner best able to protect public safety and make the most effective and efficient use of correctional resources.”

According to State Representative Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood), who is Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and sits on the Alabama Sentencing Commission, “Public Safety is always the first priority with any sentencing recommendations.”

The legislature mandated the commission to devise a plan for Truth in Sentencing in 2006, the time frame was extended in 2009 and was extended again until 2011.

The commission has worked diligently on the mission given them by lawmakers but Truth in Sentencing, or TIS as it is commonly referred to, is a complex issue with many parts that conflict with Alabama’s current system and with the state’s budgetary woes.

TIS is really a very simple concept, it most basically means that when a convicted individual is given a sentence, that person will serve everyday of that sentence.

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TIS is intended to tell the public that a sentence pronounced in court will actually be served—rather than the criminal serving only some small fraction of the sentence, due to the prisoner being released on parole, or the individual having the sentence commuted to probation and serving no time at all.

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Under TIS statutes, offenders are required to spend substantial portions of their sentences in prison. The federally recommended portion is 85 percent of the sentence.

TIS is a simple idea with a numerous exceptions and complications.

Many states have forms of TIS but they all vary to some degree and there is no proven model that works effectively across the broad scope of individual state laws.
  
As part of the legislative mandate the sentencing commission was to chart a set of judicial sentencing guidelines that would, “Abolish parole and goodtime credits, eradicate unwarranted sentencing disparity, make available alternate punishment options, address prison overcrowding, incapacitate dangerous and violent felons, and ensure truth in sentencing while maintaining judicial discretion.”

These are all guidelines that not only seem needed but fit nicely into a public safety priority as well as being a system that is more closely aligned with the traditional concept of crime and punishment.

However, there are grave contradictions within the mandate.

Truth in sentencing means that there will be more prisoners serving longer sentences, therefore, more people will be housed in penitentiaries. TIS is in direct opposition to reducing overcrowding and will greatly exacerbate the already critical mass of prisoners in Alabama correctional facilities.

According to logic it has been pointed out that there are only two ways to control prison population and subsequent overcrowding. One is how many people are being put in the system and the other is how many are being let out.

While TIS is a fair system and one greatly supported  by law-enforcement as well as victims, it is not as easy implemented when faced with constraining budget short falls.

In the past when a state instituted the policy of TIS it also committed large amounts of money to expand the prison infrastructure and  building new facilities.
 
The deadline for an implementation of TIS has Alabama lawmakers faced with a perplexing set of circumstances.

While some are looking at alternative sentencing for some non-violent offenders as a way to relax overcrowding, the legislative mandate for TIS is scheduled for this upcoming session.

Paul DeMarco is a man who knows the issues and has worked on bringing a solution to this complex problem.

DeMarco said, “There are some discussions of sentencing reform toward alternative sentences but there is a statute, a red flag, I think it was this past year the legislature said [to the Alabama Sentencing Commission], ‘You’ve got to come back with truth in sentencing.’ So, we have got to make sure all of this meshes.”

DeMarco is aware of the balancing act the government faces but is pushing for a fair outcome.

“It is very complex because you have a lot of stakeholders, you’ve got law enforcement, the prosecution, the court system with the judges, the prison system, the budgeting, the Legislature and the Governor,” said DeMarco,  “But the most important aspect that sometimes gets forgotten is the citizens who say, ‘What are the primary roles of government?’ It’s public safety. So, we have got to make sure that nothing gets lost in the mix and that is what I worry about it is not just about dollars and cents. You have got to remember the human phase in this whole picture.”

Some point to the fact that with the prison budget at around 25 percent of the state’s general fund that there is no way to mesh TIS with the need for a reduction in prison population.

“This is a case where the facts of the situation are being greatly ignored,” said an individual who spoke on terms of anonymity. “The government wants Truth in Sentencing, cops and prosecutors want it, the public at large wants it and most of all victims deserve it. But no one is willing to pay for it.” This individual further said, “Try it, go out tomorrow to the people of Alabama and say we want to keep criminals behind bars for their full sentence. Well, the people are going to say, ‘Yes.’ Then you say to them, alright, now, we will need to raise your taxes by five or ten percent. They will say, ‘Hell no.’”

This person with intimate knowledge of the prisons and the state budget says that there is dire need for a rational approach, where there is a mix of alternative measures as well as move toward TIS.

“The budget is going to get better, the economy is going to get better eventually and relieve some of the pressure. This is why we can’t look at this in a vacuum, you have got to look at it over the long term,” said DeMarco.

But our source says, “These are all very good men [DeMarco, Commissioners and Cam Ward] I wish them success in this challenging atmosphere, but, let’s be clear, math is a very stubborn thing, and we need to face the fact that even in good times we can’t have it all.”

Editor’s note, Judge Joseph A. Colquitt  has written a very informative work on Truth in Sentencing, entitled “CAN ALABAMA HANDLE THE TRUTH (IN SENTENCING)?”

Click here to read Judge Colquitt’s essay.
 

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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