Prison terms are inconsistent in Alabama

Published 12:00 am Friday, January 20, 2006

I stood before the Pardons and Parole Board.

I was on a special mission.

I did not talk long, but the moment was very important because it had been long in the making.

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I thought about Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1957 speech when he said in so many words that if the powers that be gave us the vote, we would insure justice.

In 1975, Earnest Woods, a 16-year-old black male, was accused of raping a white woman.

His family contacted Attorney Rose M. Sanders to represent him.

When she discovered that he was guilty, she withdrew from the case.

She simply could not represent a person guilty of rape.

She feels so strongly about rape.

I feel likewise.

Earnest was represented by another lawyer and ended up with a prison sentence of 75 years.

Faya Rose has regretted her decision for so many years because the sentence was far too long for a 16 year old.

It is my understanding that the victim even felt the punishment was excessive.

Rape is a terrible thing.

It affects victims for years and sometimes for life.

I want every rapist punished.

I really feel for the victim.

Something, however, is wrong when a sixteen year old gets 75 years in prison.

Something is wrong when after 10, 20, 25 and now 30 years, he cannot get a parole.

Rebecca Woods is Earnest’s mother.

She has suffered greatly for these thirty some years.

She regularly visited him in prison.

Each time a parole hearing is set, she is there, trying to get Earnest out.

She was there this day even though another son had to help her walk.

Worry has broken her body.

She was so touched that I was there to stand with her.

The first parole hearing was many years ago.

Each year a hearing was set, parole was routinely denied.

Convicted murders were paroled in less than 10 years.

Convicted rapists, even of children, received less punishment and were paroled in so much less time.

It became apparent that other factors were at work.

In this instance, it was the double power of race and sex.

Each, race or sex, is a powerful factor.

Together, they forge extremely powerful portions when the man is black, the woman white and the crime rape.

Race and sex are powerful factors in every facet of the criminal justice system.

If we look closely, race is a causative factor in our overcrowded prisons, our high rate of incarceration, and our much longer prison sentences.

And most are male by far.

Lets examine this situation briefly.

Alabama has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world.

In fact, it’s higher than any country and higher than all but three states in the U.S.A.

And the incarceration rate for African Americans is nearly four times that of whites.

Alabama has one of the highest lengths of imprisonment in the world.

In fact, it’s higher than any country and higher than all but a few states.

And the length of prison terms are longer than all but a few states.

And the length of sentence is much longer for African Americans than for whites.

Alabama has one of the most irregular records for pardon and parole.

Some serve a short time and others serve a much longer time for similar crimes.

And African Americans are less likely to receive parole than whites.

Each of the trends mentioned above are exacerbated when race and sex intersect.

The sentences are much longer when the victim is white and the convicted defendant is African American.

The biggest gap between lengths of sentence involves rape when the victim is white and the person convicted is African American.

I recently talked with a woman whose mother was stabbed 12 times taking her life.

He got 20 years and was out in eight.

He then stabbed another woman in a similar manner and got 30 years.

When I stood before the Pardons and Parole Board, this was the reality backdrop facing Earnest Woods.

Now it was facing me.

He had entered prison at age 16 and was now 46.

After 30 years, the Parole Board voted 2-0 to parole him.

One board member did not vote.

This decision is a long delayed step for Earnest Woods, but the challenges remain for so many more.

Afterwards, Mrs. Rebecca Woods said, “Now, I might live a little longer.

A heavy weight is lifted from me.”

We are so far from Dr. King’s dream of being judged by the content of our character rather than by the color of our skin.