Editorial: A deadly mistake — Sollohub case shows the real result of Alabama’s broken prison system
by The Anniston Star Editorial Board
Dec 17, 2013 | 6398 views |  0 comments | 31 31 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Joshua Eugene Russell sits in a courtroom at the Calhoun County Courthouse during his sentencing hearing. Russell was sentenced to death in the killing of Annsiton police officer Justin Sollohub. Photo by Stephen Gross.
Joshua Eugene Russell sits in a courtroom at the Calhoun County Courthouse during his sentencing hearing. Russell was sentenced to death in the killing of Annsiton police officer Justin Sollohub. Photo by Stephen Gross.
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In May 2009, Joshua Eugene Russell was sentenced to five years in prison after his conviction on drug distribution and obstruction of justice charges. If five years meant five years, Russell would have been behind bars in August 2011, when he shot and killed Justin Sollohub, an Anniston police officer. Instead, Russell was granted early release in October 2010 after serving only 17 months in prison.

At Russell’s sentencing Monday, Circuit Judge Brian Howell promised the 26-year-old will never see freedom again. Russell will be executed for the murder of Sollohub, a talented young man whose extraordinary life was cut short by a felon who should not have been on the streets. In retrospect, the early release of the man who would kill Officer Sollohub in cold blood was a heartbreaking wrong.

The obvious questions: How and why did this happen? The short answer lies with Alabama politics and the cowardice of our representatives in Montgomery.

The state’s prisons are dangerously overcrowded. They hold almost twice as many inmates as they were designed to hold. The threat of a federal takeover of the prison system is hanging over Alabama’s head. Yet, the big changes required to fix this problem are too much for our politicians, who love to brag about “lockin’ ‘em up” but are fearful to ask taxpayers for enough money to house all those criminals.

Alabama politicians live in a blissful fiction: The state takes in more money than it needs, and the state will pay no price for deep budget cuts.

Amid these delusions, the state prison system is forced to make hard decisions. Administrators must guess which inmates present a real threat and which ones can be released early without disturbing peace and security. Quite clearly, those officials assumed wrongly in the case of Joshua Eugene Russell. What’s worse, Officer Sollohub paid for this mistake with his life.

“As fast as we put them in, they’re back on the streets … and now we’ve lost a great young officer,” one of Sollohub’s Anniston police department colleagues said back in 2011.

There are no quick and easy solutions. That’s no excuse, however. Montgomery can and should begin fixing our corrections system. It will take courage from the governor and members of the Legislature, who must agree to raise and spend money to keep bad guys locked up.

If the tragic and unnecessary murder of Justin Sollohub isn’t enough to grant them that courage, we don’t know what will.
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