Friday, April 28, 2006

Adventures in legal reasoning

Alabama locks up thousands of nonviolent drug offenders every year, sometimes for lengthy sentences. We have people serving mandatory life sentences for burglary or drug trafficking while some convicted killers can get paroled in under a decade.

As you might expect, these facts have resulted in wildly overcrowded state prisons with conditions that bring to mind words like dangerous and deplorable. Perhaps inevitably, the cramped conditions in Alabama's prisons have spilled over into the county jails that often serve as way stations for inmates on their way to the state corrections system. County sheriffs, unsurprisingly, aren't very happy about that, and they said as much in the form of a lawsuit.

But this isn't your garden-variety lawsuit. It's the kind that's still going strong after a decade and a half. It's the kind that gets a former state prison commissioner held in contempt. It's the kind that can leave lawyers wondering what exactly they saw in this "legal profession" in the first place.

It's also the kind that can lead to the advancement of some novel legal theories, like the ones Circuit Judge William Shashy heard Thursday as state officials unsuccessfully sought the case's dismissal. For example, new state prison commissioner Richard Allen argued that it's not so bad to keep almost 500 state inmates in county jails after the 30-day deadline to transfer them, because, after all, that's only about seven per county. (Besides, county jails aren't quite as jam-packed as state prisons, so shouldn't they just shut up and accept their fair share of overcrowding?)

Shashy also rejected several other dismissal arguments, including 1) "just leave it to the other branches of government," 2) "we're working on it," and 3) "it's just lasted so long, Your Honor." Shashy's response to No. 3: "You act like I like this thing going on. I don't know what you're saying there, but I find that bizarre."

He's not the only one.

In fairness, Gov. Bob Riley pushed several long-needed prison reforms through the Legislature this year, including voluntary sentencing guidelines aimed at restoring some sanity to the criminal justice process. Still, experts say it'll be years before we see any gains from those measures, and Alabama's prison system continues to be so overwhelmed that the state is outsourcing hundreds of inmates to out-of-state facilities. The picture may get prettier in a few years, but it won't stop being ugly any time soon.

So what's the long-term answer to Alabama's prison woes? Simple: Our leaders must stop overreacting and face reality. As The Huntsville Times editorialized last week: "Until the legislators muster the fortitude to stand up to the 'soft-on-crime' allegations by the demagogues who would ignore rationality and practicality for political purposes, not much is going to be accomplished."

Assuming, of course, that endlessly creative legal arguments and never-ending lawsuits count as "not much."


Blogger Oberon said... crazy can things get?.....what's next?....i'm a texan....thought i'd seen it all....just gets stranger all the time.

8:29 PM  

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