Prison population spike tied to 1970s crackdown

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MOBILE, Ala. (AP) - Lydia Diane Jones had not lived at her Jefferson County apartment for two months when she stopped by in December 1997 to retrieve some clothes.

Court records show that law enforcement authorities, who had the Ensley apartment under surveillance, swarmed in and ordered Jones to the ground at gunpoint. They seized marijuana, cocaine and other evidence.

Some four months later, investigators arrested Jones and charged her with trafficking marijuana. Unfortunately for her, Alabama’s habitual offender law was at its most unforgiving at the time. Anyone convicted of a Class A felony with three prior felonies - no matter how old - received an automatic sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

For Jones, her priors consisted of three different offenses, all arising out of the same incident 17 years earlier. Court records show that her then-husband stole a purse and that she wrote a pair of forged checks to buy food at a grocery store. That one incident resulted in three convictions for Jones - two forgeries and robbery.

Ultimately, an appellate court overturned the conviction for reasons unrelated to the habitual offender law. But experts said the statute, passed in the 1970s as a means of cracking down on repeat criminals, is one of the most significant reasons why Alabama’s prison population has ballooned over the past three decades and now threatens to overwhelm the entire system.

The state has taken steps since Jones found herself in court to mitigate the impact of the felony offender law, but experts say it continues to tie the hands of judges.

“Even with those amendments, Alabama has one of the most stringent, one of the harshest felony offender laws, if not the harshest,” said Charlotte Morrison, an attorney who represented Jones after her conviction in 2000. “It doesn’t make sense as a matter of policy.”

The Alabama Legislature passed the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977. At the time, the prison population was 3,455, according to the Department of Corrections. By the end of the 1980s, the prison population had almost tripled, to 13,541.

The habitual offender law is not the only reason for that increase. In response to rising crime rates, lawmakers steadily cracked down on drug offenses. In 1980, they added mandatory-minimum sentences for violent offenders and abolished good-behavior credit for prisoners serving long-term sentences. Over the years, legislators also added enhanced penalties for dozens of crimes, including those involving firearms, offenses against children and terrorism.

From 1977 to last year, the prison population increased by 840 percent, to 32,467. Since 1968, the biggest single percentage increase occurred in 1978, the year after the repeat offender law passed. The 62 percent increase in the prison population came after two years in which the inmate population had declined by 961 people.

In March of this year, the latest month for which statistics are available, habitual offenders made up 27 percent of the total prison population.

“I think it’s a significant driver,” said Morrison, who works for the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery.

Bennet Wright, the executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said the habitual offender law had the greatest impact on the state’s prison population in the early years because judges had fewer options at the time.

Like other states, Alabama basically allowed for two outcomes when someone got convicted - a prison sentence or probation.

“The criminal justice system in that system had less alternatives,” he said. “In an ideal criminal justice system, there’s a continuum of sanctions. … I never think it’s wise to have an all-in or all-out system.”

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