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State’s new sentencing law alarms Rushing

In May 2015, prison reform became more than just a buzzword in the state of Alabama. The concept was backed by law in a measure known as the Alabama Justice Reinvestment Act, which went into effect Feb. 1. Although “prison reform” carries largely positive connotations, Franklin County district attorney Joey Rushing is concerned about the undertones of the new sentencing and community supervision guidelines designed to lower Alabama prisons’ populations.

The new legislation, which is designed as a “data-driven approach to reduce corrections spending and reinvest savings in strategies that can decrease recidivism and increase public safety,” according to the Justice Center, lays out several provisions for decreasing prison population. One is the implementation of a new class of offenses, Class D Felonies: drug and low-level ($500-$1,499) property crimes like minor theft and forgery – crimes which all used to be Class C felonies.

“If somebody commits those, it’s a one to five year sentencing range, but you cannot, under any circumstances, sentence the person to prison for a Class D felony,” Rushing explained. The problems with this measure, Rushing said, are many, not the least of which is a reduced deterrent to keep people from committing these crimes, compounded by new parole laws. Under the new guidelines, a parolee’s violation of the terms of parole in any way other than committing a new offense (Class A felony or sex offense) or fleeing the area cannot result in the parolee being sent to prison – when previously this was an option. The consequence, Rushing said, is not harsh enough to deter parole violations – 45 days in the county jail. Stricter consequences can only be considered after three such violations.

Another concern is new sentencing guidelines for burglaries, which deem burglaries of unoccupied dwellings as “nonviolent” – meaning, ultimately, that many burglary cases that were previously eligible for prison will not be under the new guidelines.

Rushing predicts these measures will be upsetting to the victims of these nonviolent burglaries.

“We know from dealing with victims that one of the worst things you can do is make it where someone who commits a burglary isn’t even eligible for prison,” Rushing said. “We’ve had some of our angriest, upset people who had their sentimental property taken, and they can’t get it returned, and then if that person can’t be punished by being sent to prison, it really changes the way our whole system is set up.”

Rushing added, “We’re going to see an increase in the crime rate in the next year or two, in my opinion, because these individuals will not be allowed to be sent to prison.”

The new legislation also implements shorter required probation times and greater incidence and length of parole across the board – the latter in an attempt to prevent criminal relapse.

Rushing said, from his perspective, the new legislation will only reduce prison population at great cost ­– an unintended increase in crime without the ability to adequate punish offenders.

“If there aren’t any severe consequences, why would they be scared to commit a crime, if they knew they weren’t going to go to prison?” Rushing said. “I’m nervous about it, myself, as a homeowner who lives in Alabama … There’s been nothing like this in Alabama history. It’s very concerning.”

Rushing said although prison overcrowding and the fear of federal takeover are valid concerns, the new legislation is too extreme and largely isn’t the answer. Rather, there’s a need to “find more revenue – whatever it takes” to effectively run the prison system.