The United States ranks first in the world in an unwanted category – the number of people incarcerated. The most recent tally in 2018 shows about 2.2 million people are in jails or prisons, a number that exceeds any other country on earth.
Judges nationwide, and in Alabama in particular, have gained attention for their efforts to cut that figure. They offer alternative sentences, often reflecting the actual crime committed.
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Judge Marvin Wiggins was one of those judges. On a day that a bloodmobile was outside the courtroom, he told defendants they could give blood in order to avoid jail time. Many did so. But the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) filed an ethics complaint against the judge for his action and Wiggins later was censured for ethics violations.
Wiggins wasn’t the first to try to reduce the jail population. Several years ago in Bay Minette, Alabama, a local program was developed as an alternative to incarceration. Called Restore Our Community, the program aimed to keep people involved in the community via churches.
First-time, non-violent offenders facing municipal court charges were allowed the option of attending church services once a week for a year to avoid jail time, fines and other traditional criminal penalties. But advocacy groups did not agree with this approach. In particular, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said the ROC initiative violated both the U.S. and state constitutions. Bay Minette never went forward with the program.
Other unusual alternative sentencing arrangements have fared better in other parts of the country. For example, a defendant found guilty of playing a car stereo too loudly was offered a sentence of listening to classical music. An Ohio woman who mistreated animals was sentenced to sleep in a forest overnight, and another animal abuser was sentenced to sit and stay in a town dump.
These so called “shame sentences” garnered a lot of publicity, but there’s no way to know if they deterred crime. While “shame” or creative sentences are not common in Alabama, the state has nonetheless recognized that alternatives to incarceration are needed.
Alabama already has a more traditional program aimed at reducing the rate of incarceration. Alabama law sets out community punishment and corrections programs as an alternative to incarceration. It’s the type most people are familiar with – sanctions that can be imposed include work release, day reporting, home detention, weekend jail time, house arrest, restitution programs, community service, education and intervention programs, and drug treatment programs. People with certain serious felony convictions are excluded, however.