The year 2016 will be a time of change in criminal courts in Alabama. In response to the crisis of overcrowding in Alabama prisons, the Alabama legislature passed new laws to ease the number of people crowded in prisons within its jurisdiction. The new prison reform statutes seek to create more opportunities for individuals convicted of nonviolent crimes to receive probation and stay out of jail. The hope is that with support measures structured into probationary oversight and more opportunities for structured parole for those already imprisoned, fewer offenders will spend time in prison and recidivism will decrease. The prison reform bill sets the stage for those who commit crimes to learn, with proper support and assistance, to live in their communities without needing to resort to crime.
To this end, a new class of crimes was created under Alabama Code Title 13A Section 13A-5-6 (13A-5-6). While Alabama had three classes of felonies on the books - A, B, and C - which related to available punishments, the new legislation created a fourth classification - Class D. Conviction of a Class D offense lists consequences in line with the prison reform ideals. The prison reform bill puts heavy emphasis on supervision of a felon while that felon is in the community, not long sentences behind bars.
The new category Class D offenses listed under 13A-5-6 are:
- Unlawful possession of marijuana 1st
- Unlawful possession of a controlled substance
- Theft of Lost Property 3rd
- Criminal Possession of a Forged Instrument 3rd
- Forgery 3rd
- Theft of Property 3rd
- Theft of Services 3rd
- Illegal Possession of Credit/Debit Card
Some Class D offenses were previously Class C offenses but are now included in the new category to reduce the likelihood of incarceration upon conviction. Some offenses still listed as Class C felonies are also eligible for the new sentencing regime.
What will these new dispositions look like? A nonviolent offender may now receive a sentence involving strict adherence and attendance at community-based programs such mental health programs or community corrections. Previously that same offender may have been sentenced to a lengthy jail term. In addition, the prison reform law authorizes the establishment of a hardship license for convicted felons who may apply for the hardship driver's license to allow convicts to attend parole appointments and travel for employment. The maximum sentence an offender can receive under Class D is 5 years and 1 day of incarceration.
In addition to the direct sentencing changes created by the new law, Class D felonies offenders are not subject to Habitual Offender enhanced punishment. Conviction of Class D felonies will not be counted for determination of Habitual Offender Act status should the offender be convicted of other felonies. This change in law keeps more people from receiving lengthy incarceration for nonviolent crimes.
The new laws also make changes to technical violations of parole, which are most often those not related to the commission of new crimes. Furthermore, those ex-inmates who violate parole in general may be sentenced to a short time of recommitment to prison followed by further parole.
Alabama prison reform brings opportunity for an offender to succeed in the community under the watchful eye of probation or parole and to stay out of prison alleviating the crowding problem and hopefully leading to a better life for the offender. Community corrections in lieu of jail time appears to be the centerpiece of the new legislation. The hope and thought is that with the right balance of supervision, programming and structure, nonviolent offenders can get on the right track and bring success to their lives instead of future law-breaking and the resulting incarceration.