Of every $100 Federal and State dollars spent on substance abuse and addiction, how much of that money do you think Alabama spends on substance abuse prevention, treatment, and research?

Leave a comment to guess!  The answer will be posted tomorrow morning.


AL Judges: In-prison sentencing greater than alternative

The Alabama Sentencing Commission has as part of its mandate the task of creating a “fair, effective, and efficient sentencing system” for the State of Alabama.  To this end, the Sentencing Commission developed and implemented worksheets to be voluntarily used by judges in an effort to “encourage utilization of the standards and alternative sentences for eligible offenders.” For more background, please read the full report here.

The following is an excerpt from the Sentencing Commission’s 2009 Annual Report that describes the Commission’s findings regarding the use of said worksheets by judges:

Figure 2 (bottom) is a flowchart displaying the “In/Out” worksheet recommendations and In/Out dispositions for the worksheets for which judicial compliance will be reported in this report. Box A shows the starting number of worksheets that are used to report judicial compliance – 11,485 worksheets.

Boxes B and C show the distribution of the “In/Out” recommendation for the 11,485 worksheets. The “In/Out” recommendations reflect the Prison vs. Non-Prison recommendation based on the total score of the “In/Out” worksheet. An “Out” disposition was recommended in 61 percent of the received worksheets and an “In” disposition was recommended in 39 percent of the received worksheets. For those worksheets with an “In” recommendation, an “In” disposition was imposed 79 percent of the time (Box E). For those worksheets with an “Out” recommendation, an “Out” disposition was imposed 72 percent of the time (Box F).

To follow-up on the bolded findings above, one sees that judges voluntarily followed the worksheets’ recommendations more often when the worksheet resulted in an “In” recommendation (79%), than they did when the worksheet recommended “Out” (72%).  And remember, these findings are only for those judges who used the worksheets.  The Sentencing Commission points out:

This information only reflects those sentencing worksheets submitted to the Sentencing Commission that were fully and properly completed for the offense of conviction, which was a worksheet offense. Wide variation exists across counties with regard to submitting worksheets to the Sentencing Commission for applicable worksheet cases. Submission compliance rates range from nearly 89 percent to zero. [emphasis added by AWRN] Statewide, the Sentencing Commission received 45 percent of sentencing worksheets for applicable worksheet sentencing events.

As shown in Figure 1, 12 counties had submission rates above 70%, 24 counties had submission rates between 50% and 70%, 18 counties had submission rates between 30% and 50%, and 13 counties had submission rates below 30%.

The shaded boxes in Figure 2 (Boxes E and F) indicate sentencing events that were “In/Out” compliant – that is a “prison” sentence was imposed for an “In” recommendation, or a “non-prison” sentence was imposed for an “Out” recommendation.

For a full list of compliance rates (worksheets received to worksheet sentencing events) by county, please view page 77 of the Sentencing Commission’s report.

Figure 2:

INOUT Sentencing

AL Sentencing Commission Annual Report

The Sentencing Commission’s 2009 annual report is now available online.  Below are a few excerpts on community corrections.

Sentencing Alternatives:

“The Department of Corrections is now operating at 190% capacity, counting the inmates housed in county jails awaiting transfer it would be operating at 203% capacity. As of January 2009, there were 2,312 inmates diverted to community corrections. Without this alternative, the Department of Corrections would be required to house these offenders, utilizing more beds than any one facility now is capable of providing. While this figure may not seem dramatic when compared to the total inmate population, these prison diversions demonstrate success in reducing the prison population and providing other means of punishing and providing drug and alcohol treatment to non-violent offenders.

Alabama lacks a true continuum of statewide community supervision and treatment services with clearly defined roles and comprehensive services. It is clear that a system of intermediate community-based punishment options must be developed statewide for felony offenders, maximizing community and State resources and providing quality substance addiction/abuse and mental health treatment, both in-patient and out-patient. These services must be available at sentencing , as well as revocation and reentry, increasing in levels of supervision and treatment according to the offender‘s risk and needs.

The Sentencing Commission has been attempting to resolve the problem of insufficient and inadequate sentencing alternatives in Alabama since the Commission was created. Among its first recommendations to the Legislature was amendment of the Community Punishment and Corrections Act to establish a permanent Community Corrections Division within the Department of Corrections with a full-time director and support staff to undertake the statewide expansion of community corrections programs. In addition, based on the recommendations of the Sentencing Commission, the amended Community Corrections Act established a revolving fund in the State Treasury for appropriations dedicated specifically for the initiation and expansion of community-based punishment programs for eligible felony offenders.

The Commission has consistently recommended that the Legislature provide adequate funding to develop a statewide network of effective community correction programs. The appropriation for community corrections programs has increased from $2 million to over $6.1 million annually. As a result of adequate funding by the Legislature and expansion efforts by the ADOC and the Sentencing Commission, since 2002 the number of community corrections programs in Alabama has grown from 18 programs to 34 programs operating in 45 Counties, with the newest program being Russell County Community Corrections, which started up in 2008.”

State Savings:


“In 2008 there were 2,312 community correction diversions for a savings of incarceration costs of approximately $9,125 per inmate per year or a total of approximately $21 million per year.”

Map of AL Community Corrections


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MA Bar Association Drug Policy Task Force report on The Failure of the War on Drugs

Reposted from The Real Cost of Prisons Weblog

The Massachusetts Bar Association’s Drug Policy Task Force has issued a major report, “The Failure of the War on Drugs: Charting a New Course for the Commonwealth.” The report urges the Legislature to reform the state’s approach to drug prevention, treatment and punishment. “Changing policies from emphasis on incarceration to more encouragement for treatment would allow us to save money, reduce crime, and rebuild families and communities.”

AL judicial elections: Cost of running a tough campaign

Yesterday, the Birmingham News published an article by Alabama State Bar President J. Mark White on the topic of financing for judicial campaigns.  White stated, “At a time where we desperately need judges who are viewed as and are, in fact, impartial decision-makers, more than 75 percent of the public believes that there is a correlation between campaign contributions and judicial decisions. Worse yet, more than 49 percent of the trial judges in this country share the same feeling. And one thing one can be assured of in a partisan judicial election — it’s expensive. In 2006, which was the last major election cycle here in Alabama, $17 million was spent on judicial campaigns in our state. Last year, more than $5 million was spent on the race for a single open Supreme Court seat. More and more money is poured into judicial elections with every election cycle, with no end in sight.”

As shocking as the data White shared is, campaign financing in judicial elections is but one factor that can pervert justice, and many other judicial selection models (perhaps just as vulnerable) are being discussed across the U.S., like Colorado’s commission model wherein candidates are nominated and the governor makes a selection, with the judge chosen undergoing a retention election after a period of time. Other formal selection processes aside, there is a powerful social norm that guides the election of Alabama judges, one that may not disappear no matter the selection process—the expectation that all judges be tough on crime. 

From handing down excessive sentences to rendering disparate sentences for crimes committed, many Alabama judges, as well as other officials, feel that in order to gain public support come election time, they must be tough on crime. They feel they must go beyond empirical sentencing standards to prove they are the toughest, or at least tougher than their political opponent. This feeling among judicial candidates is not just conjecture, but has been the catch phrase or byline of many campaigns. As AWRN reported last week, the United Nations Human Rights Council sent a special rapporteur on judicial processes to Alabama, Philip Alston, who stated, “But if – as research and practice show –the outcome of such a system [judicial elections] is to jeopardize the right of capital defendants to a fair trial and appeal, there is clearly a need to consider changes. Studies reveal that in states where judges are elected there is a direct correlation between the level of public support for the death penalty and judges’ willingness to impose or uphold death sentences. There is no such correlation in non-elective states. In particular, research shows that, in order to attract votes or campaign funds, judges are more likely to impose or refuse to reverse death sentences when: elections are nearing; elections are tightly contested; pro-capital punishment interest organizations are active within a district or state; and judges have electoral experience.”

In addition to high profile death penalty cases, the tough-on-crime banner has the momentum to push judges to be “tougher” in other areas, such as drug possession cases which are no doubt influenced from the social and political context of our nation’s longstanding drug war that diverts more money to enforcement than prevention and treatment.

In Alabama, we have to be honest and realize that following the money trail is only part of the problem for our justice system. There is a real, actionable belief that in order to be elected, one has to hand down harsh, punitive justice and that rehabilitative measures are of less value to our society. It is perplexing that the case that finally brings to light the implications of electing judges in Alabama is a white collar, business-related case in West Virginia with a direct campaign financing connection, one in which the judge’s decision to not recuse himself was the pinnacle of injustice. What about the hundreds upon hundreds of people affected by a judge’s tough-on-crime campaign strategy? What about the many women in Alabama serving excessive sentences, serving actual hard time behind bars, whose case did not have a party linked with the judge’s campaign finances? Is a direct financing connection necessary to implicate judges for bringing their extrajudicial motivations to the courtroom?

Prevention Punished: Real Numbers

A recent article from the Birmingham News explored just how Alabama’s $1.4 billion tagged for drug and alcohol abuse is spent.  Read the complete article, including an interview with Kent Hunt, Associate Commissioner of Substance Abuse Services, State Department of Mental Health, on the importance of treatment expansion, here

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Birmingham News, June 11, 2009

Drug War Entrenched, Prevention Often Punished

An article in this weekend’s Dothan Eagle reported on drug intervention and arrests in the Wiregrass, interviewing T.O.P.S. (AWRN member) associate pastor Maurice Graham about his own battle with drugs and the importance of rehabilitation programming. As the Dothan Eagle reported, President Obama allocated $15.1 billion in FY 2010 for drug enforcement and prevention, with prevention taking a funding cut.

On the topic of recidivism and court-overseen drug rehabilitation programs, Dale County Special Programs Manager and drug court official (Dale and Geneva counties) Cheryl Leatherwood stated she “was disappointed to see that President Obama did not follow through on his promise to stop the ‘War on Drugs.’ He did not increase funding for treatment interventions and working with the courts to identify those who can benefit from intervention programs.” She went on to say that drug courts are indeed helping, and that her program has graduated people in the past couple of months, with more “slated for graduation over the summer.”

The Dothan Eagle article cited ADOC statistics on recidivism, citing that 35% of convicted drug offenders released in 2005 returned to ADOC custody within a 3 year period. These statistics are unclear, as the article did not expressedly say that the 35% of returned drug offenders were returned to prison on substance abuse charges. This discrepancy, like so many others, is an important piece of the puzzle of understanding and addressing substance abuse, as substance abuse rarely happens in isolation of other factors.

In fact, substance abuse is most often a concurrent problem that follows poverty, untreated illness, and abuse. These factors may have played a large role in the return of the 35% of released drug offenders cited in the article, whether their new charges were drug related or not. Without knowing what offenses the 35% of offenders returned were accused of and their individual context, as well as whether or not the individuals were able to access/participated in substance abuse treatment post-release, it is impossible to assess the effectiveness of in-prison substance abuse programs or post-release substance abuse programs.

The cost of programs is high, but only when viewed in comparison to no alternatives, no treatment, and no eye to the future of Alabama’s communities. The ability to see trends in treatment and programming needs across the state would go a long way toward putting the budget discussions to rest, and would reduce drug-related crime. Without seeing trends through coordinated data collection, analysis, and sharing, Alabama’s budgets will continue to play catch-up to a specter of high treatment costs that may very well be affordable and funded through diversified resources. 

Alabama’s substance abuse treatment programs, both at the community and state level, are working hard to coordinate their efforts toward recognizing these trends and providing in-demand services at greater capacity. Hats off to their achievements and continued dedication to improving the lives of Alabamians.