Alabama lawmakers are the poster children for cognitive dissonance. They’re still trying to have it both ways on criminal justice.
They say they want reform. They say they don’t want the federal courts to take over the state’s overcrowded, understaffed, outdated and dangerous prisons. They say they’re willing to consider alternatives to locking people up and throwing away the key.
And yet, time and again, state legislators turn around and do the opposite. They fall prey to demagogues who will attack their opponents as “soft on crime” or say “you don’t support law enforcement” if they don’t go along or if they stand up for the rights of the accused — or even the rights of the exonerated.
The Alabama Legislature ended its 2019 session having done little substantive work to address the deplorable state of the state’s prisons. It did pass a pay hike for prison personnel, politically the easiest thing it could do. But even that is unlikely to attract enough corrections officers to adequately staff the state’s prisons unless much more is done.
Instead, the Legislature has left all of the hard questions to a likely special session, assuming Gov. Kay Ivey calls one.
Lawmakers found it much easier to pass Ivey’s plan to give her more control over the state’s Pardons and Paroles Board, which has become the scapegoat for much that is wrong with the state’s prison system.
Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was a violent offender the parole board OK’d for release to a halfway house, and he then killed three people. The Spencer case pointed to a need for more information and accountability, but the Legislature went further, requiring that those convicted of violent crimes and other Class A felonies serve 15 years in prison or 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for parole.
Such mandatory, across-the-board minimums are part of how Alabama got one of the nation’s largest prison populations per capita in the first place. It is a step backward while other states and the federal government are moving away from mandatory minimums.
The Legislature then balked at allowing the medical use of marijuana in the state, electing instead for people who use marijuana to relieve chronic ailments to remain criminals, at least for another year, while a state commission studies the issue.
Supporters of medical marijuana expect the commission to come back with a plan that will lead the Legislature to pass medical marijuana in its 2020 session. We can only hope lawmakers don’t find some excuse to put it off again.
Also relegated to the back burner is Sen. Arthur Orr’s proposal to do away with civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government to take the property of people accused of a crime without a criminal conviction — and keep it even if the person is found not guilty or is never charged, forcing the person to sue to get his property back.
Instead, lawmakers passed a bill mandating that law enforcement agencies track their use of civil forfeiture.
More data is always useful, but we don’t need more data to know taking people’s property without a criminal conviction goes against the principle of innocent until proven guilty. Orr promises to bring his bill back next year, and, we hope, with the information the Legislature is now demanding, there will be no more excuses not to pass it.
It’s an occupational hazard, but when it comes to criminal justice, many lawmakers need to stop talking out of both sides of their mouths before the federal government swoops in and tells them to put up or shut up.