Across the South, the high cost of imprisoning drug offenders is forcing lawmakers to take a long, hard look at traditional "lock 'em up" approaches to drug users and sellers. Louisiana's legislature became the latest to act on the growing problem last week as the Louisiana Senate voted overwhelmingly to reduce drug possession sentences and end some mandatory minimum sentences for nonviolent offenders. Meanwhile, as the Alabama Sentencing Commission prepares to make reform recommendations to the legislature next year, that state's prison space crisis is reaching embarrassing new levels.

Alabama's prison crunch made national news this week when the Washington Post reported how county sheriffs overwhelmed by prisoners awaiting transfer to the state prison system had to go to federal court to force the state prisons to take custody of their charges.

In a hearing last month, US District Judge U.W. Clemon described jail conditions in one county as "medieval" and resembling a "slave ship." In a state where nearly two-thirds of prisoners are black, Clemon's remark may be more telling than he intended. Racial commentary or not, the judge ordered the state prisons to accept 104 prisoners stuck in county jails.

But there is no room at the inn. "State prisons are full, county jails are full and the probation officers are loaded up with cases," Allen Tapley, executive director of the Sentencing Institute, a private research group, told the Post.

Gov. Don Siegelman (D) has vowed that the state will absorb the transferred inmates, but he has also directed state lawyers to ask a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge to halt the move.

According to the Alabama Department of Corrections, as of February 2001, 16.5% of the state's 27,000 prisoners are drug offenders and 64% of prisoners are black. If current incarceration rates continue, the prison population will hit 35,000 by 2005, according to Prison Commissioner Mike Haley. "We have run out of space to put these inmates," Haley told the Birmingham News in March.

Haley is a member of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, which is pondering changes in the state's harsh attitude toward imprisonment. Created by the state legislature last year, the panel will submit its recommendations in 2002. With 571 inmates per 100,000 population, Alabama has the nation's fifth highest incarceration rate.

In hearings in March, commission members focused on drug policy. Birmingham Judge Peter Johnson told the panel drug treatment for ex-cons was crucial. He said as many as seven out of ten defendants appearing before him tested "dirty for drugs" and there were too many familiar faces. "I kept dealing with the same people," complained the judge. "If we don't address the issue of drug addiction, we'll see them [drug defendants] again," Johnson said.

Another commission member, Stephen R. Glassroth, president of the Alabama Criminal Defense Lawyers Association, told the Birmingham News that drug treatment, not building more prisons, was key. To reject innovative policies such as treatment programs, drug courts and community corrections in favor of more prison construction would be to "spend ourselves into oblivion," Glassroth said.

While Alabama ponders, Louisiana is acting. SB239, which passed the Senate and is now headed for the House, removes mandatory minimum sentences for simple drug possession and other nonviolent offenses (ranging from prostitution to lotto skimming to poaching and video voyeurism), slashes minimum sentences for drug distribution offenses, and includes a provision for already sentenced prisoners to apply for early release. The bill would also require that persons sentenced to life as repeat felons must have been convicted of two previous violent felonies. Under current law, even nonviolent felony convictions, such as drug possession, can be counted.

The lopsided vote -- 29-5 -- indicates that sentencing reform has achieved broad support in Louisiana. It is driven largely by financial considerations. According to the Louisiana Department of Public Safety and Corrections, 30% of the state's 36,000 prisoners are drug offenders and 75% of prisoners are black.

"We have lost control of the prison population," Sen. Charles Jones (D-Monroe) told the Advocate (Baton Rouge). "We are spending nearly $600 million a year on prisons. We cannot continue to spend $600 million on prisons. What will this bill do? It will keep our people safe while at the same time saving approximately $60 million a year," said Jones.

Louisiana Corrections Department Undersecretary Trey Boudreaux agreed, adding that savings will build over time. "But if the numbers we're seeing now hold true, I think the $60 million is a conservative estimate," he told the Advocate. Boudreaux added that according to an analysis of inmates at one prison who had first-time drug or nonviolent convictions, 40% would qualify for a sentence review and half would walk out of prison, potentially saving the state $10 million annually on early releases alone.

But not all considerations were bottom line. Senate President John Hainkel (R-New Orleans), who called the bill "a momentous piece of legislation," agreed that the financial burden of imprisoning nonviolent offenders by the tens of thousands was terrible, "but from a moral standpoint, it's worse."

The Louisiana House has little more than a month to act on the legislation. The Louisiana legislative session ends June 18.

-- END --
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Issue #185, 5/11/01 Editorial: People of All Shapes and Sizes | With DEA Administrator Nomination, Bush Puts a Hardline Drug Policy Troika in Place | DEA Internal Report on Supersnitch: Agency Finds Itself Not Guilty | US Slapped Down at UN, Removed from Human Rights, Drug Panels, Congress Threatens to Take Ball and Go Home | Louisiana Legislators Act to Reduce Drug Sentences as Prisons Bulge, Alabama Prison Crisis Going Un-addressed This Year | Australia: First Injection Room Opens in Sydney as West Australia Eyes Similar Plan | Canada's Top Drug Cop Calls for Look at Injection Rooms | SSDP Making Waves: Madison, Hampshire, Amherst SSDPer Stages Mock Coffee Prohibition, Other Events | Smoke-Ins, Hempfests and Mass Protests: Movement Makers or Risky Distractions? | The Reformer's Calendar
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