----- Original Message -----
From: Taoss - Sherry Swiney
To: PATRICK Crusade
Sent: Sunday, June 15, 2003 8:21 PM
Subject: Prison panel's advice may die
Sent: Sunday, June 15, 2003 6:25 PM
Subject: Prison Reform?
Prison panel's advice may die
By Mike Cason 6/15/03
The Alabama Legislature waited three years for an expert panel's advice on how to fix the criminal justice system, which is staggered by an all-time high prison population and spiraling costs.
Now, with one day left in the annual legislative session, lawmakers may let that advice go unheeded.
Three bills recommended by the Alabama Sentencing Commission as long-term solutions to crowded prisons and other problems await a vote in the state Senate on Monday. They already have passed the House. But if they die in the Senate that would add to what the Sentencing Commission's report described as three decades of neglect to the prison system.
"The state has faced and continues to face a dramatic crisis in our criminal justice system because we have disparities in sentencing and lack of truth in sentencing and a lack of alternative sentencing," said Chief Assistant Attorney General Rosa Davis, a member of the commission. "The first major step to solving those problems is passing this package. I think it would be a setback for resolving these problems if this package isn't adopted."
Gov. Bob Riley and key lawmakers agree the Sentencing Commission bills are one of the highest priorities Monday.
"We cannot sustain the level of incarceration that we have today," Riley said Thursday.
Other key bills will also live or die Monday.
Lawmakers could give final passage to eight election reform bills, including one to require voters to show ID at the polls.
House Speaker Seth Hammett, D-Andalusia, said the single most urgent bill is one that would provide $39.5 million in supplemental funding to the Alabama Department of Corrections and other state agencies. The prison system would get $25 million.
"That probably is the central remaining issue that has to be resolved," Hammett said.
Brian Corbett, spokesman for the Department of Corrections, said the $25 million is needed to get the agency to the end of the budget year on Sept. 30.
Corbett said the money will cover increased costs for personnel, inmate medical care, gasoline, court mandates and the opening of a mental health dorm in Bullock County.
The House is scheduled to consider a bill that would set up a self-insurance fund for nursing homes and would cap lawsuit awards against nursing homes in wrongful death cases at $1.5 million.
The bill is the subject of an intense lobbying war between nursing home owners and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association.
The Senate passed the bill last week. But it was changed in a House committee at the request of nursing home owners. Opponents stalled it with a House filibuster that lasted all day Thursday.
If there's no agreement on the bill, Monday could go to waste in the House, Hammett said.
"I hope between now and Monday the Nursing Home Association and the Alabama Trial Lawyers Association will get together," Hammett said.
David Marsh, president of the trial lawyers group, said no negotiations were planned for the weekend.
Mary Ann Holt, executive director of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, said nursing homes need legislation passed to ensure that they can afford insurance coverage. Nursing home owners contend that lawsuits are driving insurance costs too high.
"We've been negotiating with the trial lawyers for six months," Holt said.
Marsh said trial lawyers oppose the bill because it takes too many rights from the residents.
"There has to be a balance," Marsh said. "It's a horrible bill for consumers."
Alabama's prison population stands at about 28,000, up 600 percent from 30 years ago.
The Sentencing Commission bills would begin to slow the incarceration rate in several ways.
One bill would make it easier for counties to establish community corrections programs. Those programs currently operate in 21 counties. They give judges the option of assigning a low-risk offender to a drug treatment program or a restitution plan to repay their victims, as opposed to a prison sentence.
"If you look back over the last 20 years it's obvious our prison system has increased a little more than 1,000 inmates a year," Corbett said. "I think that trend will continue without some sentencing reform. It's going to become more and more costly to continue to operate in state prisons when sentencing alternatives could provide cheaper and more effective incarceration methods."
A second Sentencing Commission bill would raise the value of stolen property that triggers a prison sentence. For example, it would raise from $250 to $500 the value of stolen property that constitutes second-degree theft, which can result in a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
That figure was last adjusted in 1992. By changing that and other corresponding dollar values in theft laws, the Sentencing Commission estimates the state would save about 3,000 prison beds between now and 2007.
The third Sentencing Commission bill begins the process of setting up truth-in-sentencing guidelines, which will eventually make prison sentences more accurately reflect time served.
Mike Cason can be reached at 240-0117, or by e-mail.