By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter
In the up coming legislative session Representative Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) will carry bill HB 77.
“Reforming the criminal justice system is going to be an important issue facing us,” said England.
As a part of this reform he has offered HB 77 a bill that offer some low level lawbreakers an opportunity to have their criminal records permanently expunged.
HB 77 reads as follows:
“This bill would authorize a person charged or convicted of certain felony or misdemeanor criminal offenses, a violation, or a traffic violation to petition the court in which the charges where filed or in which the conviction occurred to have his or her records expunged, including, but not limited to, arrest records, fingerprints, photographs, or index references in documentary or electronic form, relating to the arrest or charge, or both, and conviction in certain instances.”
“We have to look at the criminal justice system from arrest, to trial, to conviction, to incarceration,” says England, “and we need to reform the entire thing.”
England believes that we need to take a look at how we approach low-level drug offenders and those who have committed property crimes as a result of drug addiction.
“We can’t just take people and lock them up and expect it to not create a problem on the other end.”
England makes the case that when the state places low-level offenders in with hardened criminals that this situation of close association breeds more hardened criminals not less. He also thinks that because of the backlog of cases in the justice system and other factors that the time between arrest, trial, and sentencing have a negative affect on the system as well as the offender.
“I will give you a prime example,” says England. “Take a low-level drug offender, one who gets arrested for possession, since there are so many drug offenders it can take one to two and a half years to get fully prosecuted.” England believes that a person with a real drug problem will be more likely to reoffend during this waiting period.
“Do you think that person’s arrest is going to stop them from using drugs or is it going to make it worse? It is going to make it worse,” he says. “During the time that this individual is waiting to go through the system he could pick up two or more drug offenses,” says England.
According to England, too few prosecutors, too few judges and the lack of state funding has led to a breakdown in the whole system.
England is concerned that overcrowding at statewide correctional facilities has led to the worse criminals being released in order to make room for those who have perpetrated lesser non-violent crimes.
“If you have a corrections facility that has hundreds people in it you’re going to have low-level drug offenders living along side violent criminals, sexual criminals, but the low-level drug offender is going to outnumber serious criminals. So, how are we are going o keep the worse criminals locked up? We must have some form of alternative sentencing,” says England.
England says he favors alternative sentencing for low-level drug cases or property cases stemming from drug addiction. He proposes such alternatives as work release or house arrest or intensive drug treatment programs that allows the person to get clean, stay out of jail and move toward a path to becoming a productive member of society.
He also believes there must be a very strict assessment program that determines what type of programs might work best for the individual and if that particular person should be considered for one or not. “Now, if there is nothing that is going to be effective [with an individual] then let’s put them in prison where they belong,” said England.
England knows that politicians want to appear tough on crime but that there are ways to be tough on crime and also offer alternatives to incarceration.
HB 77 deals with what happens to a person’s criminal record after they have fulfilled all their responsibilities to the state. “We have to look at the whole process,” say England. “Even after a person has fulfilled all their responsibilities to the criminal system, do we still treat them like drug offender for the rest of their lives?” he asks.
According to England some states have a process where a drug offender or a first-time offender, after paying their fines, completing certain programs and obligations, can have their case dismissed. “These types of programs can help a person a get job, get back on their feet and care for their families,” he says.
HB 77 would give a low-level offender a chance to have their record cleared and move on without a public document of their criminal history. “I got really close a few years ago with a similar bill, it made it to Bob Riley’s desk and he pocket vetoed it. Politicians are so fearful of being accused of being soft on crime,” said England.
England goes on to explain what might be the process, “Let’s say we have someone who is convicted of a low-level drug crime, we give them a choice you can either serve time, or you can pay a much higher fine, be on a longer, extended probation, attend certain classes and do community service, but in the end have your record expunged. This makes the dismissal tract much more difficult for the offender than pleading guilty,” says England. “But once someone says [the word] ‘dismissal’ someone is going to say that’s being soft on crime. This track is actually more difficult for the offender. But this is one of those things that takes more than 5 minutes to explain.”
England believes that with the state prison overcrowding and with the justice system under budget restrains that it is time to look at these types of alternatives. He also believes in second chances for some. England’s path would requires that an offender demonstrate full rehabilitation, that the person would have to pay their fines, pay restitution, fulfill probations and all other obligations as well as being drug free. Then after a period time they could petition the court to have that case expunged from the records.
“I am carrying these bills to try and give the person who has made a mistake an opportunity to rebuild their life and become a productive citizen,” say England.
HB 77 is a part of a more comprehensive reform that England hopes to see enacted over time.