Sometimes in Alabama, the most difficult part of a criminal case is determining what the legal sentencing range and options for particular client.
Through the years, layer has been added upon layer of sentencing obligations and exceptions.
In early modern times, sentencing was fairly simple. Different crimes were classified as either Class A, B, or C felonies, Class A, B, C misdemeanors and violations.
Then, in the late 1970s, the Legislature added the Habitual Felon Act. This act created a system whereby persons convicted of felonies would have their sentence ranges greatly increased in length if they had one or more prior felonies.
Between 2008-2016, Sentencing Guidelines were added. These brought some needed uniformity to sentencing and greatly mitigated the harshness of the Habitual Felon Act to certain offences. (I had many clients convicted of mere possession of a controlled substance with a mandatory minimum sentence of 15 years.) Later in this timeframe, the Legislature created a new level of felonies called Class D felonies. Currently,
[A]bout 6,000 inmates, about one-third of the prison population, are serving enhanced sentences under the HFOA. Three-fourths of those sentenced to life without parole under the HFOA were Black.
During the past 20 years, we have also seen the mass adoption of Drug Courts and Veterans Courts as sentencing alternatives and other pretrial diversion programs.
And most recently, we are now operating with the extra consideration of eligibility for Community Corrections.
Community corrections can include programs like drug courts that are intended to focus on changing behavior as a last option before sending someone to prison. Daily check-ins for the possibility of random drug tests and regular court appearances can help bring about those changes.
I do think we need to scrap the Habitual Felon Act, or at least the mandatory minimums. All felonies should be brought under the sentencing guidelines. As suggested in this article:
HB107 represents the smartest path forward to restore fairness, equity and common sense to Alabama’s criminal justice system.