The Republicans running the show at every level of state government since late 2010 are experts are creating laws, going so far as criminalizing non-existent problems such as illegal immigration and voter fraud.
However, they are falling down on the job when it comes to order.
To be fair, though, Alabama’s sorry reputation when it comes to criminal justice stretches back for more than a century. What we’re seeing today is merely the latest version of a sad legacy.
As recent General Fund budgets have tightened, the Legislature and governor have simply shrugged as courts and law-enforcers struggle to do more with less. The amount of time courts and prosecutors can devote to criminal trials is shrinking across Alabama. Police labs have been shuttered. Wait times for police to receive lab results on criminal evidence are growing. Courthouse hours have been cut back.
Perhaps worst of all, the state’s prison overcrowding problem is growing more dire by the day. The instinct of most Alabama residents is to have little sympathy for prisoners. After all, the prevailing wisdom goes, these inmates deserve punishment. If they are crammed into a prison system made for 13,000 souls that now confines 25,000, then so be it.
However, there are long-term costs associated with the lock-’em-up-and-forget-’em strategy.
The first is that these inmates won’t all stay behind bars forever. What becomes of those who return to the streets? What did their stretch in the pen teach them? Are they rehabilitated (as the founders of our modern-day correctional facilities would hope), or are they mere survivors of a crowded prisons system that can’t afford to devote much to turning around the lives of felons?
Equally serious is the threat that the federal courts will examine Alabama’s prison system and declare that its 2-to-1 overcrowding amounts to a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s prohibition against cruel and unusual punishment. Alabama can’t afford to maintain a decent penal system, and it sure can’t afford the costs of an extended legal battle with the feds.
On Sunday, The Star’s Tim Lockette presented a picture of an overworked Pardons and Parole Board. If the board’s three members “heard 90 cases per day and paroled every one, it would take nearly a year of three-day weeks to get the prison population down to the 13,000 it’s built for. That will never happen, board members say. Only about 30 percent of the inmate population is eligible for parole, board members say, and many inmates have given no indication that they’re ready to leave prison,” Lockette wrote.
And even if it could, that many parolees would strain the state’s already overworked parole officers, who are carrying four times the recommended caseloads.
And down, down, down the state spirals.
A hallmark of an effective state government is an effective, efficient and well-staffed criminal justice system. Alabamians deserve just that, one that protects residents, punishes lawbreakers and keeps order.