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Alabama Chief Justice Issues Overcrowding Warning

| June 29, 2011

Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb has a warning for the legislature of her state: fix the overcrowded Alabama prison system, or the judiciary will do it for you.  Like many other states’ leaders, she read Brown v. Plata, and saw a similar problem in her own state.  Alabama’s prisons are currently operating at about 190% of capacity: dangerously close to the level that prompted the Supreme Court to declare California’s overcrowding levels unconstitutional and forced the release of 30,000 prisoners in a 5-4 decision.  The Huntsville Times has the story.

The Plata decision along with the legislature’s failure to pass a broad sentencing reform package, have Chief Justice Cobb and a number of state senators concerned about a judicial takeover of Alabama’s prisons.  Cobb estimates that a sentencing reform package pending in the state legislature could have reduced the overcrowding to 170% of capacity.  The sentencing reform package was taken down by legislature, however, primarily based on a fear of appearing “soft” on crime to constituents.  Senators told the Chief Justice “we didn’t come to Montgomery to lessen sentences.”  In response, Senator Cam Ward pointed to a number of conservative states like Texas who have seen great success in abandoning archaic “tough on crime” principles in exchange for “smart on crime” principles.

In the end, only one of the seven bills in the reform package survived, and that one merely corrected and updated an existing law.  Accusatory fingers are pointing in several directions, but regardless of who is to blame, the legislature’s failure to take care of a glaring problem in a way that would have saved millions is discouraging.

Were a judicial takeover of Alabama prisons to occur, it wouldn’t be the first time.  A U.S. District court declared the overcrowded prison conditions cruel and unusual punishment in 1976, and appointed a special master to oversee a transition to a system that passed constitutional muster.

“It’s a shameful thing,” said the Chief Justice. “They knew we were locking people up for things that are not appropriate for changing their behavior, and we’re wasting money.”