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."


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