Alabama judges using alternative sentencing

The Times Daily, a local newspaper in Alabama, has this story about judges looking beyond either sending a defendant to jail, suspending the sentence, or granting probation.

Alabama judges now have other options for punishing those convicted of or pleading guilty to crimes, including work release, where the person is able to work but spends the remainder of their day in jail, and community corrections, where they might be sentenced to house arrest, being allowed to leave home only for work, church, doctor visits and such.

An option in some counties, including Colbert, Lauderdale and Franklin, is drug court, where drug users are required to complete a rehabilitation program rather than go to prison.

Lauderdale Circuit Court Judge Mike Jones said, “My feeling is that prison almost never rehabilitates someone,” … “If you put someone in prison for a long time, they become socialized to the prison environment and can no longer function in society. Some people need to be locked up. But others do not need to be locked up.”

Jones prefers supervised probation, where defendants must report to their probation officer on a regular basis, maintain employment, be screened for drug and alcohol abuse, complete substance abuse prevention programs and comply with court-ordered restrictions.

In work release, inmates pay a portion of the money they earn to help pay for their incarceration, pay restitution to their victims, and pay fines and court costs.

“An alternative sentence does not mean there are not any consequences for someone’s bad behavior,” Jones said. “It just means a judge has the option of doing something other than putting someone in a cage. If someone murders someone, rapes someone or robs someone, they need to go to prison. But if someone has a drug problem, what have we accomplished by locking them up for many years? Some people stand a better chance of turning their life around if they are punished by something other than sending them to prison.”

And, it’s saving the state money.

Alternative sentences provide substantial cost savings to the state, according to the sentencing commission. The average daily cost of a community corrections offender for fiscal year 2007 was $12.97 as compared to $39.46 per day for an inmate incarcerated in the penitentiary, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

The Department of Corrections estimates that by diverting felony offenders to community corrections programs, there was a cost savings of at least $88 million. This represents savings to the taxpayer of approximately $8 million dollars realized just this year by the reduced costs of housing the offenders in correctional facilities and the estimated $80 million to $120 million in construction costs that would be required to build a new facility to house these offenders.