As the former Chief Justice of Alabama, I am proud to have devoted my career to the cause of justice in our state. But as a lifelong United Methodist, it shames me to know that if Jesus came to our state today, he would chastise me and every other Alabama Christian for our nearly complete silence on a terrible injustice taking place under our noses and in our names every day: ineffective, absurdly harsh sentencing laws that lead to overcrowded, dangerous prisons that breed more crime. What would Jesus do? Fix our criminal sentencing laws.
Our shame should be all the greater because we cannot pretend that we do not know the truth. In poll after poll, we say that we 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 horrendously overcrowded prisons.
It is undisputed that no state in the nation has prisons as over-crowded and underfunded as ours. Alabama prisons have almost twice the number of inmates they were designed to hold and far too few correctional ofﬁcers guarding them. They are terrible, deadly violent places that truly decent people would not tolerate in our midst.
The Alabama Legislature recently completed another legislative session and did nothing to remedy this deplorable situation. Why did the legislature fail to act? A lack of leadership is an easy answer, but it is also a tremendous cop out. As Christians, do we need politicians to show us the way? No. In Alabama today and everywhere, except for Senator Cam Ward of Shelby County, politicians are followers, not leaders. It falls to us, as people who profess to be passionate about true, meaningful justice to be visible and vocal on this issue. We must lead our politicians onto the path of justice. Thus far, we have failed to do so. According to Pew Charitable Trust Public Safety & Performance Project, the U.S. has ﬁve percent of the world’s population but 25 percent of the world’s prison population. If we were the safest country, perhaps we could ignore this shocking statistic, but we are not. In the past 30 years, due to the public outcry to be “tough on crime,” our elected representatives consistently and dramatically increased prison sentences. Regrettably, Alabama legislators refused to increase the funding commensurate with those increased sentences.
It is this disparity in resources devoted to putting people in prison and dealing with them once they are there that has led to the ongoing strikes by inmates in some of Alabama’s prisons.
Every dollar we misspend and waste on inappropriately locking up a non-violent offender, 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. Prevention programs are much more cost-effective with lasting beneﬁts that improve the quality of life for everyone.
By locking up low risk, nonviolent offenders with higher risk offenders, we are making ourselves less safe. 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, yet also try to ﬁx the issues that initially lead them to a life of crime.
During the recent Easter season, and Christians like me ﬁlled our churches to hear the story of a prisoner who suffered a terrible and unjust punishment. Our hearts swelled with shame over the sacriﬁce that Our Lord made for us- “while we were yet sinners.” We rededicated ourselves to serve Him.
And then too many of us have gone home and said and done nothing about the thousands of injustices in Alabama courts and prisons carried out in our name every day.
As I contemplate what that “prisoner” from 2,000 years ago would say about those prisons, I am inspired to act. And I tremble in fear about how He will judge me if I do not.