Sentencing Reform


by Sue Bell Cobb

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. 

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".

The earnest prayer of the Board of Church & Society is that all United Methodists 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.