Sentencing manual on way

 By Phillip Rawls 
The Associated Press 

A state-appointed commission that has been studying Alabama's sentencing laws is laying out a four-year plan
to remove widespread disparity in sentencing and put some truth into the length of a sentence. 

The Alabama Sentencing Commission -- a panel of lawyers, judges, prosecutors and others involved with the
criminal justice system -- spent Monday working on recommendations it will make to the Legislature next

Since being created by the Legislature in 2000, the commission has found that the sentences handed down in
Alabama courts don't reflect what a felon serves. A study of Alabama inmates released between 1999 and 2002 found that the average sentence for first-degree theft was 5.1 years, but the average time served was 1.7 years because of early release programs. 

The commission also found that sentences vary widely for the same crime. For first-time offenders convicted of
third-degree burglary, the average sentences in different courts across the state ranged from 20 months to more than 60 months, with the average being 34 months. 

"There is not only disparity. There is wide disparity," said Special Assistant Attorney General Rosa Davis, who
is helping write the commission's recommendations. 

The commission plans to ask the Legislature to approve a timetable that involves: 

--Having the commission create a reference manual for judges by July 1 of this year. It will show the most frequent sentence ranges for the top 25 offenses in Alabama. It will also identify characteristics of offenders
most likely to qualify for alternative sentencing programs outside of prison. 

--Presenting the Legislature in spring 2004 with voluntary sentencing standards based on historical trends in
Alabama. The standards, if approved by the Legislature, would take effect on Oct. 1, 2004. 

Under the new system, an inmate would have a minimum sentence and a maximum sentence that would be 20
percent higher. The offender would start out serving the minimum sentence, but bad behavior would move him
toward the maximum sentence.