Habitual Offender Enhancements Lead to Lengthy Prison Time for Birmingham Drug Convicts

The 2014 Alabama Sentencing Commission report indicates that while certain drug convictions in the state dropped a fair amount in 2012, drug and property crimes are the largest categories of offenses that send individuals to prison.

Further, when it came to sentencing of drug crimes in Alabama, the commission noted that while 52 percent of sentences were within state-regulated guidelines, 26 percent were above the recommended guidelines. Another 21 percent were “mixed,” meaning different portions of the sentence were not consistent with one another. (For example, you receive less than guidelines suggest on your Birmingham drug possession charge, but more than guidelines would suggest on a drug trafficking charge.)

The most frequent felony offense at conviction between October 1, 2007 and September 30, 2012 was possession of a controlled substance. These far outpace other kinds of convictions, with more than 22,000 during this time frame, compared to the second-most frequent felony offense conviction – burglary – with 8,300. Not included in that 22,000 figure were the 6,000 convictions for distribution of controlled substances, the 5,600 convictions for first-offense possession of marijuana and the 3,100 convictions for manufacturing of a controlled substance.

It's estimated by the commission that about one-third of those serving time in Alabama's overcrowded prisons were sentenced under the state's habitual offender law. It's considered one of the harshest in the country because it fails to weigh the length of time between one's convictions or the severity of one's prior offenses.

Of the nearly 8,600 so-called habitual offenders in the state as of 2006, about half received tougher sentences for drug crimes. That doesn't mean these folks never committed a violent crime before, but typically, the court doesn't weigh the severity of the other crime.

While legislators and law enforcement say that habitual offender laws are an important crime-fighting tool, the reality is that these measures don't cut down on crime – but they do ensure our prisons are over-crowded.

It was only in October of last year that the state passed updated sentencing guidelines , following numerous complaints by judges and even prosecutors that the state's harsh habitual offender laws stripped them of discretion.

The guidelines mean that those arrested for non-violent felony drug charges won't automatically be locked up for life. That doesn't mean it can't happen, just that it's not mandatory.

The more relaxed guidelines were deemed by the legislature in 2012 to be presumptive, meaning that the courts were to follow them unless there was some compelling reason why they shouldn't.

However, that led to numerous disparities in the way sentences were being applied. Passage of the new sentencing guidelines should offer some uniformity.

Some judges complained the new guidelines might slow the overall process because it will require the courts to more carefully weigh the sentence on the individual merits, as opposed to applying an automatic enhancer.

However, the benefit is we aren't entirely writing off the rest of people's lives because they made a mistake.

If you have a prior felony record in Alabama and are facing another charge, it's imperative you contact an experienced criminal defense attorney who can argue against harsh habitual offender sentencing on your behalf.

If you have been arrested for a drug crime in Birmingham, call Defense Lawyer Steven Eversole at (866) 831-5292.