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US AL: Editorial: Drug Laws May Need Reforming.

By admin | September 29, 2004

Montgomery Advertiser Alabama
Sept. 28, 2004.

When a small group of family members of prison inmates marched this past weekend to seek changes in Alabama’s laws governing drug law violators, lawmakers should have been listening. With Alabama’s prisons crowded to the point of bursting, the Legislature badly needs to consider changes to the laws that put nonviolent drug abusers behind bars for longer sentences than most states.

But the marchers need to focus their message if they expect legislators to listen. Calling for legislators to ease prison time for those who are there for using or possessing drugs for their own use is one thing. Calling for easing laws on those who traffic in or manufacture illegal drugs, as some marchers seemed to be doing, is something else entirely.

Alabama’s prisons are stuffed to the point that federal courts may one day order mass releases of inmates, as they have done in the past. The state already has expedited paroles to ease overcrowding, but with only modest success. The state currently has more than 23,600 prisoners jammed into facilities designed to hold half that number. ( See chart above. ) Add those still held in county jails and the total number of state inmates is more than 26,000.

While some experts estimate that drug abuse plays a role in as many as 80 percent of the cases that land someone in prison, there are about 4,000 inmates actually in prison for drug convictions of some sort everything from manufacturing methamphetamines to trafficking in cocaine, crack, heroin and marijuana.

About 1,100 of those 4,000 are inmates serving time as habitual offenders, which means that they had multiple convictions.

It is unlikely that those interested in getting shorter sentences for inmates convicted of drug crimes will have much success with certain types of drug offenses. If someone is a major trafficker or if they manufacture illegal drugs, they belong behind bars for a lengthy period. That goes double if they sold drugs to children. There is nothing wrong with lengthy sentences for those whose drug convictions involved violence or weapons or physical threats.

However, according to Corrections Department figures for 2003, there were more than 2,000 inmates serving time that year for possession of a controlled substance, and more than 500 for possession of marijuana. It is difficult to establish how many of those had other, more serious convictions.

If Alabama is locking up people for lengthy sentences who only possessed illegal drugs for their own use, who were not trafficking in them, and who had no violent acts connected to the convictions, that would seem a likely place for lawmakers to consider reform measures.

Please note that we are not suggesting that these violators get off without punishment. But with state prisons crowded far past capacity, with dwindling budgets and with taxpayers unwilling to pay more for new and bigger prisons, it makes sense to look into alternatives to lengthy incarcerations for nonviolent, nontrafficking drug offenders.

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