Freedom March

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This march will be a part of the Family Members of Inmates Convention. April 16 and 17 in Montgomery at the Statehouse plaza Inn.
Roberta Franklin

Offender Act producing undeserved prison time 


Special to the Register

In 1979, the Alabama Legislature passed the Habitual Felony Offender Act. For the quarter century, this law has sentenced to life in prison people with three "priors," regardless of the seriousness of offense. 

In a nutshell, this means that Alabama is, literally, locking up and throwing away the key for people convicted of writing multiple bad checks or getting caught with a joint three times. 

Twenty-five years ago, politicians promoted the Habitual Felony Offender Act as a way to reduce recidivism and make clear that Alabama is tough on crime and doesn't coddle criminals. But like gas-guzzling cars, feathered hair and pet rocks, the Habitual Felony Offender Act from inception was a bad idea without usefulness or merit. 

The law has also cost the state untold millions and is a key culprit behind Alabama's fiscal distress. Here's why. 

Alabama's prison system is notoriously overcrowded and over budget. In 1979, Alabama's prisons held fewer than 6,000 people. Today, the prison population has skyrocketed to 29,000 people -- much higher than the rate at which national incarceration figures have increased. 

How do these numbers translate into human lives? According to the Alabama Attorney General's Sentencing Commission, 72 percent of the people incarcerated in Alabama are serving time for non-violent, low-level drug and property offenses. 

A significant majority of Alabama's prisoners don't need prison time, at a cost to the state of $9,000 a year; they need drug treatment, which costs dimes in comparison to the dollars needlessly spent on imprisonment. 

Alabama's overcrowded prisons are in crisis. Designed to hold 12,000 inmates, the state's prison system is now operating at 185 percent of capacity. Of the 29,000 people serving time in Alabama's prisons, 8,000 have been sentenced under the Habitual Felony Offender Act, meaning that they will likely spend the rest of their lives behind bars for petty, non-violent and victimless crimes. 

The Habitual Felony Offender Act is not only expensive, but more important, it also undermines democracy. No one has been hit harder by this law than communities of color, and poor people who often can't vote their way out of this public policy mo rass because of Alabama's felony disfranchisement laws. 

According to the Washington-based Sentencing Project (a member of the National Right to Vote Campaign), about 212,000 adults are disfranchised due to Alabama's laws that deny voting rights to people with felony convictions. About 111,000 of these are African-Americans. 

In fact, 14 percent of Alabama's African-American population is disfranchised, creating a glaring deficit in the state's democracy. 

Nationwide, there are nearly 5 million voters disfranchised due to an array of state laws like Alabama's that deny democracy to American citizens. Laws like the Habitual Felony Offender Act in Alabama and its cohorts in other states are only increasing the numbers of citizens that our democracy will leave behind. 

On April 17, people affected by Alabama's expensive and wrong-headed incarceration craze will take a stand against the Habitual Felony Offender Act and its relationship to the wholesale disfranchisement of African-Americans and other disproportionately poor Alabamians. 

Reminiscent of the Freedom Rides of the civil rights movement, community members from Mobile, Selma and Birmingham who have connected the dots will converge on Montgomery for a Freedom March to oppose expensive over-incarceration and to call for full restoration of voting rights to all of Alabama's citizens. 

We encourage anyone interested in this subject to attend this Freedom March. 

Paul Robinson is the director of the Mobile-based organization One for Life, which is a member of the Alabama Restore Your Vote Coalition and the National Right to Vote Campaign. Michael Blain is policy director of the New York-based Drug Policy Alliance. Readers can send e-mail to