State Senator Suggests Change to Alabama's Habitual Offender Law
 The Decatur Daily, 19th February 2003

By Clay Redden 
DAILY Staff Writer · (334) 262-1104 

MONTGOMERY-After listening to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Donal Campbell describe
prison overcrowding Tuesday, Sen. Tommy Ed Roberts has changed his mind about the state's sentencing policy. 

Roberts, D-Hartselle, said the situation in Alabama's
prisons has reached the point that "we can't keep
throwing everyone in jail." 

"I've been a part of that thinking, and it hasn't
worked," said Roberts. "You've got to find a balance
to where the prison population is reduced but also
ensure the public that we're not turning violent
criminals loose. Finding that balance is going to be
the challenge." 

Roberts said lawmakers should look at exempting
nonviolent crimes from the Habitual Offender Act. 

Under the current Habitual Offender Act, a person who
has three prior felony convictions - violent or nonviolent - and is convicted of a subsequent Class A felony is sentenced to life in prison without parole. 

Roberts' comments came after Campbell told members of
the Joint Legislative Budget Committee that additional
funding and changes in sentencing policies are needed
to ease overcrowding problems. 

At the local level in Limestone County, Sheriff Mike
Blakely is taking steps to keep nonviolent prisoners
out of jail by using an electronic monitoring system.
Up to 60 people are expected to participate. Judges
will determine eligibility for the at-home arrest
program which begins March 1. 

Campbell asked lawmakers for $154 million in new
revenue to run his department. Of that amount, $29.2
million is needed to keep the department afloat until
the end of the fiscal year in September. 

Federal court order 

The prison system is under a federal court order to
ease overcrowding at Tutwiler Prison for women in
Wetumpka and a state court order to immediately spend
$2.4 million to house inmates and accelerate parole

Adding to the problem is a request made Monday by the
Alabama State Employees Association and prison wardens to intervene in the Tutwiler case because of unsafe working conditions in state prisons. 

"In 1992, there were 2,192 correctional officers to
handle 15,349 inmates," Campbell told members of the
Joint Legislative Budget Committee. "Today, we have
2,621 correctional officers - roughly an increase of
400 - and we have 25,317 inmates. 

Corrections Department officials didn't have similar
10-year figures immediately available for individual
prisons. However, current figures from January show
there were 247 correctional officers and 2,182 inmates
at Limestone. 

The facility is supposed to have 256 officers, a
figure prison system officials said has changed little
over the past several years. Divided between three
shifts, each of the 247 officers at Limestone oversees
26 inmates. That margin increases whenever an officer
takes time off for vacation or sick leave. 

When it opened in 1984, Limestone housed 874 inmates. 

Despite the high inmate-to-officer ratio, Campbell - a
former Tennessee prison commissioner who worked his
way up the ranks from a correctional officer - described morale as good and said that the prison system's staff is "hanging in there." 

"I don't hear that," said Rep. Tommy Carter,
D-Elkmont, who attended Tuesday's meeting. "It's been
a while since I talked to them, but when I talked to them morale wasn't good." 

Campbell said the need for an additional $29.2 million
this year is to pay personnel costs and benefits, cover increasing inmate health costs and get state inmates out of county jails. 

Of the $125.8 million requested for 2004, some $60
million is for a new women's prison to alleviate overcrowding at Tutwiler. 

Campbell agreed with a number of lawmakers who said
more money alone isn't going to solve the overcrowding
problem. A change in sentencing policies needs to be
seriously examined, he said. 

He said Tennessee reexamined its sentencing laws and
reduced their prison overcrowding. 

"We've got to look at options," said Carter. "We've
got nonviolent people sitting in prisons that could be
out working and paying taxes like you and me." 

Campbell told lawmakers if they don't do something to
address the overcrowding in the prison system, "someone else will," referring to the federal court.