Another mess of a story makes the papers


An article that appears today on Times Daily.com about the potential early release of Felita Vaughn is a fine example of the type of reporting and commentary that continues to condone the over-reliance on and overcrowding of Alabama’s women’s prisons by missing the point completely.

First, there is not only one prison for women in Alabama, but three.  When AWRN publishes numbers saying that Alabama’s women’s prisons are all at over 100% capacity, it is done to not only stress the issue of overcrowding, but to also stress the point that to build a new, additional prison is to open the door to the future overcrowding of just one more prison.  Alabama has done it in the past and with our judges’ over-reliance on imprisonment, there is no reason to think the state would deviate from its history of brick-and-mortar corrections’ projects.

The problem of overcrowding can’t be solved by building a new prison because the problem of overcrowding falls squarely on the shoulders of two entities (of which the Alabama Department of Corrections is not one) that have the power to reduce women’s imprisonment: Alabama judges and the Alabama Parole Board.  

 The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) can only reduce overcrowding by requesting state funds to build more prison facilities, something that the above facts should lead one to recognize as unsustainable for our state fiscally.  ADOC can help speed along a woman’s possible parole–and AWRN cannot stress enough possible parole–by reviewing her classification as a prisoner and moving her into a lower classification based on her progress in prison and eligibility for such a new classification.  Classification reviews and reductions like this by ADOC can show the Parole Board what progress the prisoner has made in prison–her good behavior, etc.  Still, this does not guarantee her parole.

What is most frustrating about the article produced by Times Daily.com is the statement by District Attorney Chris Connolly that of a 15 year sentence, he would like to see Vaughn serve at least 5 years. 

Why?  In what arbitrary manner was a 15 year sentence for one single count of distribution rationalized by Lauderdale County Circuit Court Judge Gil Self anyway?  And from that 15 year sentenced how was it that 5 years of incarceration was arrived at?  How was the magical number 5, with which the DA’s office feels satisfied, calculated?  Is it because 5 years would be a third of Vaughn’s sentence?  What does that even mean in reality, in the world where we all live, one third of a sentence?  Does it even have any empirical value on say something like recidivism rates?  No, it doesn’t.

Furthermore, the article seems to paint the picture that if the persons Vaughn distributed to are in prison, Vaughn herself should remain in prison.  What logic is that?  Ten, fifty, 1,000 wrongs make a right? 

One good thing mentioned in the article is that Vaughn may be sent to L.I.F.E. Tech to benefit from the transitional center’s programming under the exact mission for which the facility was originally intended.  It is our hope that the Parole Board did see fit today to send Vaughn to L.I.F.E. Tech in lieu of remaining in ADOC custody. 

One has to recognize the position the Alabama Parole Board is also put in by judges over-sentencing.  When the Parole Board reviews a woman’s case such as Vaughn, it must contend with the idea that is presented to the public that such a sentence was necessary to begin with by way of the judge’s ruling and the DA’s recommendation.  Granting parole to someone who has served only months of their 15 year sentence sounds lenient, or irresponsible.  But that kind of judgment of the Parole Board’s decision ignores entirely the possibility (if not reality) that the individual was sentenced to an extraordinary, ridiculous sentence to begin with.

If anyone feels upset or shorted, they should direct their attention not at Vaughn, but at those individuals who have filled Alabama’s prisons with women just like Vaughn–non-violent, almost always first-time, drug offenders.  Vaughn will receive in prison, at a considerable premium to tax payers, many of the same types of programming that are offered outside of prison. 

Vaughn’s 15 year prison sentence at the current daily rate that it costs ADOC to house a prisoner (roughly $44) would cost Alabama tax payers an incredible $240,900!  Vaughn is a non-violent offender.  How many of her clients are also in Alabama’s prisons?  What is the total tab tax payers are picking up because of over-sentencing and our justice system’s over-reliance on imprisoning drug offenders? 

What is Vaughn learning and receiving in prison that she could not receive in her community?  Lauderdale County has a community corrections facility and if Alabama ever gets around to it, persons convicted of distribution like Vaughn will be community corrections eligible, saving the state millions each year and more importantly, keeping women in their communities and reducing the destruction of families by incarceration. 

The question of why Vaughn is in prison serving a 15 year sentence in the first place must be asked over and over again because if the point of a woman such as Vaughn serving such a lengthy sentence is to improve public safety, one must ask what numbers are informing the agencies of Alabama’s criminal justice system that one woman serving 15 years in prison will improve our public safety.  What evidence has shown that these sentences benefit Alabama’s communities?   To venture a guess, most likely zero.

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