Alabama lawmakers seek tougher prison terms - WAFF-TV: News, Weather and Sports for Huntsville, AL

Alabama lawmakers seek tougher prison terms


When 32-year-old Wilbert James Smith was convicted of Capital Murder in Huntsville in February, it was a familiar route through the court system. Smith pleaded guilty to murder charges before, to reckless murder, for a 1998 drive by shooting in Montgomery. At the time, he was sentenced to 20 years in prison. But by 2008, he was back on the street when a Madison County Jury ruled he murdered two Alabama A&M students. 

The fact that Smith was free at all at the time was a painful complaint behind an online petition demanding harsh sentencing for him in his latest trial. The petition expressed common frustration with Alabama sentencing laws in which sentences that appear lengthy and severe when handed out, ultimately translate into something much shorter when convicts actually serve them.  

"You can be found guilty of murder and the judge gives you a life sentence and, guess what, we may see that person out on the street," said Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard.

The confounding complexity of sentencing standards has been a familiar issue for victims' advocate Janette Grantham. 

Grantham, whose brother Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham was murdered in 1979, sits on the Alabama Sentencing commission on behalf of her advocacy group Victims of Crime and Leniency.  She noted that sentencing standards can be a mystery and a shock for the families of crime victims. 

"A lot of times the prosecutors don't tell the victims or, even if they tell the victim, the victim is so upset that they don't understand," she explained.

Wilbert Smith, for example, received a split sentence in his original murder case. Fifteen of his 20 years in prison were suspended so he was only required to serve five years.

Another factor that can drastically reduce sentences is good time, the program which encourages convicts to behave while locked up by letting them take 75 days off their sentences for every 30 well-behaved days they serve.

The numbers are so familiar to Robert Longshore, member of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, that he can rattle them off the top of his head.

"A 15 year sentence in the state of Alabama means four years, seven months and 22 days. You walk out the door a free man or woman if you're not paroled," he said.

Better sentencing standards are a work in progress for the Alabama Sentencing Commission, which just delivered its new report on sentencing reform.

The current report concentrates on non-violent offenses, primarily drug related cases, clarifying crimes such as methamphetamine manufacturing and possession with intent to distribute.

A state law passed in 2012 gives the Alabama Sentencing Commission until 2020 to come with sentencing guidelines that deliver the elusive standard of "truth in sentencing."

"Really all that means," explained David Cameron Smith, General Counsel at the Alabama Policy Institute, "is that your sentence has meaning for the victim, but really also for the criminal."

But lawmakers caution sentencing reform can't be as simple as adding more years onto prison sentences.

"We have a terrible overcrowding situation in our state prison system," said State Senator Arthur Orr.  "We are almost to 200 percent of capacity. So that's one of the reasons the legislature wanted the Sentencing Commission to look at our sentences and see if there are any changes that they would recommend that we make."

Observers like Smith caution that Alabama's prison overcrowding situation leaves the state at risk for a federal takeover of the prison system, particularly if the overcrowding numbers get worse.  

Orr said clearer, more truthful sentences in murder cases will likely depend on more nuanced treatment of drug cases.

"We, as a state, want those violent offenders, those that would harm others, to truly do the time that they are given by the judges," said Orr. "And so to get down that road, we need to look at the non violent offenders and see if actually we're doing what's in the best interest of the state."

The 2012 Alabama sentencing legislation gives the Sentencing Commission greater power and latitude to set sentencing guidelines. Now, when the Commission approves changes in sentencing policy, those changes do not require the active approval of the state legislature to go into force, although the legislature can actively vote down any changes of which it disapproves.  The policy is intended to remove a political stumbling block from the time-consuming process of implementing changes in sentencing policy. 

Even this, Smith observed, will be a far cry from putting sentencing on legal autopilot.

"It's still challenging because on the sentencing commission, you have judges, you have other individuals with different perspectives on sentencing itself," he said.

With the prison overcrowding issue overshadowing sentencing deliberations, the state's finances come into play as well. Bennett Wright, Executive Director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission offered the observation that every other state that has enacted some form of "truth in sentencing" has ended up spending more on new prison construction.

Longshore added that his experience with federal corrections gives a preview of what Alabama can expect if "truth in sentencing" does become established state policy by 2020 as currently mandated.

"We'd better have had a huge economic recovery and the state's finances better have improved, because it's going to cost a lot of money to build more prisons," he said.

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