SENTENCING REFORM IN ALABAMA: PEOPLE OF FAITH & THE SILENT MAJORITY MUST BECOME VISIBLE & VOCAL
Poll after poll, survey after survey show that citizens understand that there are cheaper and more effective ways to punish non-violent, drug-addicted offenders than by locking them up in prison. Virtually every Alabama newspaper has reported on our state's horrendous over-crowded prisons. It is undisputed that NO state in the nation has prisons as over-crowded and under-funded as ours. FACT: Alabama prisons have almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold and the lowest number of correctional officers in the nation.
If your priority is public safety, you should care. If wasting tax dollars is important to you, then you should care. If "justice" is more than just a word to you, then you should care AND become visible and vocal on this issue. Why? The Alabama Legislature completed another legislative session and did nothing to remedy this deplorable situation. Why? Lack of leadership.
Why? Our failure to be visible and vocal on this issue.
According to Pew Charitable Trust Public Safety & Performance Project, the US has 5% of the world's population but 25% of those who are incarcerated around the world. If we were the safest country, perhaps we could ignore this shocking statistic, but we are not. In the past 30 years, due to public outcry, our elected representatives consistently and dramatically increased prison sentences. Regrettably, Alabama legislators refused to increase the funding commensurate with those increased sentences.
As Christians and people of faith, why we should care?
First, for every dollar we misspend and waste on inappropriately locking up a nonviolent offender, that is a dollar that is desperately needed for prevention of child abuse and neglect, mental health services, education, parks, libraries, healthcare, and our deteriorating infrastructure.
Second, by locking up low-risk, nonviolent offenders with higher-risk offenders, we are making ourselves LESS SAFE. There is evidence – data enough to fill Bryant-Denny Stadium, Jordan-Hare and Legion Field – that there are less expensive, more effective community alternative punishment programs which appropriately punish an offender without sending them off to prison. Model drug courts (the replication of which was a major priority of mine during my tenure as Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court), HOPE courts, mental health courts, expanded community corrections and work release, intensive probation services, and evening juvenile reporting centers are examples of ways to hold offenders accountable while working on the issues that initially led them to a life of crime. As Chief Justice, I maintained that our sentencing focus should be on "fixing people not just filling prisons."
Last, all too often, the poor who are charged with a crime receive a different result in court than people of means. Lawyers who are appointed to defend indigent defendants advise their clients to plead guilty for sentences that are not appropriate. Too many trial judges accept pleas which are above the guidelines and fail to use their influence to expand alternative punishment programs. This sentencing culture runs completely counter to one of the most important concepts of justice in our country: "Equal justice under the Law".
As a case in point, let's look at Draper Correctional Facility. Draper was built in 1938 for 650 men and is now holding approximately 1250 inmates. From the perspective of the safety of the public, the inmates and the correctional officers, the most horrifying statistic is that the 24 hours a day, 7 days a week operation of this prison is accomplished with only 100 correctional officers. Draper is slated to have 213! With staffing at less than 50%, it is probably no surprise that its chapel holds 125 people, only 10% of Draper's population. This is totally inadequate to meet the spiritual needs of the inmates.
Chaplain Willie Whiting has been working for over 10 years trying to raise the funds to pay for the building materials so that the inmates themselves could build their own worship center. The very modest building will also have two classrooms so that a variety of counseling and rehabilitative efforts can take place. The Alabama-West Florida Conference of the United Methodist Church has decided to support Chaplain Whiting's effort. Bishop Paul Leeland and his cabinet believe that incarcerating inmates and not providing them a place to worship is unacceptable. The Conference Board of Church and Society will be leading a conference-wide initiative to assist Chaplain Whiting in raising $200,000 in both monetary and in-kind donations. These funds, with those already raised, will procure the construction materials so Draper inmates can build a place to worship. We will be asking all United Methodists to give generously so that all inmates at Draper who desire to go to Bible study, worship, substance abuse counseling, fatherhood initiatives, and a myriad of other worthwhile activities can do so. "...when you have done it for the least of these, my brethren, you have done it for me."
The earnest prayer of the Board of Church & Society is that all United Methodists will not JUST give a donation to buy bricks and mortar, but also, and perhaps more important, they will take up this cause and consistently write and call their elected officials, from the Governor to their legislator to their district attorney, and urge them to make meaningful sentencing reform a reality in Alabama. When they do, we will have a criminal justice system that is more just and a state that is more safe. These are worthy goals for a people of faith and those who care about justice.