- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) - The head of a prison task force said sentencing changes, increased resources for parole and alternative sentences and construction projects to take the immediate pressure off overcrowded prisons will likely be among the items the group recommends to lawmakers.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the lawmaker who heads the Alabama Prison Reform Task Force, said he wants members to look at a “buffet” of proposals in January and hopefully have a bill ready in February. The group has been meeting since June to consider ways to overhaul the state prison system, so overcrowded that state politicians say they fear federal intervention.

Alabama prisons hold nearly twice the number of inmates the facilities were originally designed to house. Alabama in 2013 also had the fourth-highest incarceration rate in the country, according to a report from the Bureau of Justice statistics.

“Politicians created this problem. Through the years we’ve had politicians running on ‘Lock them up and throw away the key.’ They ran on that platform, but they didn’t have a means to fund the high rate of incarceration,” said task force member Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile.

Alabama deals with low-level property crimes more severely than other states, according to a study presented to the task force by the Council of State Governments.

Stealing something valued at $500 is felony theft in Alabama. Thirty-four states have higher monetary thresholds for theft to be considered a felony, according to the group. Alabama also considers burglary, no matter how small or the circumstances, to be a violent crime. Other states do not.

“We haven’t changed those thresholds in years. We have the lowest thresholds in the South,” Ward said.

Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said he believes the state needs additional changes to the Habitual Felony Offender Act, a decades-old law that for years handed down decades-long sentences.

“In my opinion, and I’m the chief justice, I think the judicial system is failing us,” Moore said.

“We’ve got people serving life without parole who have never confronted a victim, they’ve never confronted a person. That’s unreasonable,” Moore said in an interview.

Alabama lawmakers approved the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977 in an effort to crack down on career criminals. It mandates enhanced sentences for repeat offenders and mandatory sentence minimums. For example, a person convicted of a Class A felony - such as first-degree robbery, trafficking, rape, murder - is sentenced to life, either with or without the possibility of parole, if they have three prior convictions for lesser felonies. Lawmakers have softened the law through the years and since 2006 have allowed judges to set the lengthy mandatory sentences aside in some cases in favor of new sentence guidelines.

The chief justice said he believes there are still problems. Moore in September wrote a dissent in a case, in which a man caught trying to steal a nail gun from a Lowe’s by stuffing it down his pants, was sentenced to life in prison as a habitual offender.

The man, who had three previous felony convictions, was convicted of first-degree robbery, a Class A felony, after telling the store staff that confronted him that he had a gun while sticking his hand in his pocket. Moore said the man, who was not armed with a firearm and told police he was referencing the nail gun, should not have been convicted of armed robbery because he was not armed.

Ward said a major thrust for the task force will be to seek changes to probation and parole procedures.

Forty percent of prison admissions are for violation of probation and parole, according to the study presented to the task force. Officers with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles carry average caseloads of about 200 each.

“Somewhere in this process there is going to have to be some more money for supervised parole. Right now we just don’t have the manpower to conduct the kind of supervision that these inmates need,” Ward said.

Ward said the state needs to do something to increase immediate prison capacity to take the immediate pressure off of the system. That too, Ward said, will also take additional money from the state.

Bennett Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, said if lawmakers just pass legislation without funding, “those reform efforts are never going to reach their potential.”

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