Alabama revises Habitual Offender Law By Sheryl
Marsh DAILY Staff Writer
November 15, 2001
Morgan County has more than 200 defendants serving sentences as habitual
offenders in Alabama prisons, and some of them have terms of life or life
without parole. A recent revision of the state's habitual offender law
could unlock the prison gate for some of them and send them back into the
civilian world. Some Morgan judicial officials, including District Attorney
Bob Burrell, oppose the new law. Chief Probation Officer Murray Millwee
said it would put a strain on his department. "We've got all we can handle
now. I wouldn't think that all of them would be eligible because
violent crimes would likely be involved. But at any rate, we have
a heavy load now," Millwee said. Overall, the probation office has about
900 cases and 650 of them are active. Probation officers also have
to work the inactive cases because they might involve people who are in
jail or some who are wanted for probation violations. There are six
probation officers and each has a caseload. "I would say each officer is
seeing about 100 people per month," said Millwee. There are 294 inmates
in state prisons who were sentenced as habitual offenders in Morgan County,
according to Steve McBee, program analyst for the state Department of Corrections.
That number includes all inmates sentenced as habitual offenders and that
does not mean that all of them are serving life or life without parole
sentences, according to Lynda Flynt, executive director of the sentencing
commission. Under the existing law, judges could consider a defendant habitual
and enhance a sentence if he had a prior felony conviction. There
are those who have three prior felones and depending on the seriousness
of the third crime they could face life without parole. For instance,
if the crime is not a Class A felony, which usually involves violence,
the inmate would face a life sentence. If the crime was in that category
he would face life without parole. Gov. Don Siegelman signed the new bill
into law a couple of weeks ago to allow the early release of some prisoners
who are serving life or life without parole as habitual offenders.
Siegelman also issued an executive order for the Department of Corrections
to consider only inmates with no violent crime history.
Additionally, he ordered prison officials to conduct a study on how
to implement the law and give a report to Attorney General Bill Pryor and
the state sentencing commission by June 1 2002. No inmates can be
considered for early release until that is done, according to reports.
Pryor and district attorneys throughout the state opposed the bill and
rallied against it. Burrell was one of them. "I sent the governor a letter
asking him not to sign the bill. I think there's a number of problems
with it. For one thing, I don't think victims' rights groups were
afforded the right to respond to it while it was before the legislature,"
Burrell said. Morgan District Court Judge David Breland does not oppose
the law and says he understands why the Legislature passed it. "I think
what they (legislature) are doing is clarifying what their original intention
was in the late 1970s when they passed the first habitual offender law,
and that was to sentence violent, three time offenders to life without
parole. I don't know if it was ever the legislature's intention to
sentence non-violent offenders who commit offences like property crimes
to life sentences," Breland said. "I think the Legislature has made a policy
decision that perhaps there are alternative forms of sentences rather than
life for non-violent offenders that would be more effective and economical
for the taxpayers," he added.
The Legislature passed a law last year that reduced some sentences for
repeat offenders, but it only affected people who were sentenced for a
fourth felony after May 25 2000. The new law will be retroactive.
After signing the order, Siegelman said, "Our prison system keeps people
locked up for life for stealing a bicycle while we have trouble finding
space for murderers, rapists and child molesters."