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Sent: Saturday, February 08, 2003 11:53 PM

The Associated Press
2/7/03 6:03 PM

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) -- A commission studying Alabama's sentencing laws wants the Legislature to raise the dollar amounts that define levels of property crimes in the state, adjusting for inflation after nearly three decades. 

One key result: Changing the levels for the first time since 1975 could mean fewer thieves in Alabama's jam-packed prisons. 

The Alabama Sentencing Commission, created by the Legislature in 2000 to review Alabama's sentencing laws, is rushing to complete recommendations to present to the Legislature for its session beginning March 4. 

Some could be implemented immediately, such as raising the dollar amounts on property crimes. Others would take time, such as developing voluntary sentencing standards for judges to follow. And others would take more money, such as expanding community corrections programs from 23 counties to all 67. 

The commission, which met Friday, is developing its plan with urgency because the state is under court orders to relieve overcrowding in its women's prison and to alleviate the backlog of state inmates in county jails. At the same time, a budget squeeze and slow economy will make it hard for the Legislature to allocate more money to corrections. 

"Everything is maxed out, and something has got to be done," said Tammy Meredith, an Atlanta criminologist who is doing research for the commission. 

The Sentencing Commission is recommending that the Legislature raise the financial levels for nearly all property crimes. For instance, first-degree theft would go from more than $1,000 worth of stolen goods to more than $2,500 worth of goods. 

First-degree offenses for receiving stolen property, illegal possession of food stamps, and charitable fraud would make the same jump, if the Legislature approves. 

Meredith said a survey of Alabama criminal cases showed that 42 percent of theft-of-property cases and 36 percent of receiving stolen property cases involve $2,500 or less. Her consulting company is working on a computer model that will show what the impact would be on Alabama's prison population, but it could be significant because 44 percent of Alabama's prisoners committed property crimes. 

Commission Chairman Joe Colquitt, a retired circuit judge from Tuscaloosa, said the passage of time dictates a change, if nothing else. 

"We've had years of inflation and these amounts are low," he said. 

Victims' right advocate Miriam Shehane, director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, said she had no problem with raising the amounts. 

The Sentencing Commission, which includes all facets of the criminal justice system from a crime victim to a defense lawyer, has set out broad goals, but is still working on details of some, such as voluntary sentencing standards. 

Meredith said her research has shown that similar offenders receive different sentences depending on where in the state they commit their crimes. 

The commission wants to develop ranges that a judge would use for similar offenders. Judges could ignore the ranges, but they would have to explain to the commission why they did, commission member Rosa Davis said. 

Alabama's new corrections commissioner, Donal Campbell, attended his first commission meeting Friday. Campbell, who previously held the same job in Tennessee, said the discussions sounded familiar because Tennessee went through the same thing in the early 1990s when it had prison overcrowding problems