Op-Ed: Alabama prisons and criminal justice system

Rep. Randall Shedd (Cullman Tribune file photo)

With any issue, finding the right balance is the key to success. The prison/criminal justice system issue is no different.

The purpose of prisons, in my view, is to keep the public safe! And, provide the opportunity for inmate rehabilitation when possible. We have to be careful with that one.

Innocent people deserve protection from those who willfully choose to be a danger to innocent people.

I think we have to keep that focus as the Legislature and Governor Ivey address this complicated issue.

Congress passed bi-partisan criminal justice reform called the First Step Act less than one year ago, December 2018.

According to published reports, the first person released early from prison under that act was arrested last month for murder.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office said in court filings, “He had a reputation for violence.”

The local police commander expressed concerns about his early release and said at the time of his release, “He had a propensity for violence.”

I think we all understand we have to find solutions to problems plaguing Alabama’s prisons and criminal justice system.

Either we find Alabama solutions, or the federal courts will order expensive solutions or even release of prisoners who could be safety concerns.

This is the highest priority of the 2020 legislative session, and I have confidence Governor Ivey and her team, in partnership with the Legislature, will have Alabama solutions. In fact, I am aware of the work that is being done in preparation for the session.

We must find a reasonable balance. Early release of prisoners of premeditated violence is NOT a reasonable solution.

However, overcrowding with non-violent prisoners provides us an opportunity for other reasonable options without being soft on crime.

We also must take this opportunity to review recent “reform” legislation to see what works and doesn’t work and where it went too far either way.

We must satisfy the federal courts on prison conditions, overcrowding and mental health without putting law-abiding citizens at risk. And, if we solve the mental health problem in prisons (and we should) we should solve the mental health problem in our communities, too.

We’ve all read way too many headlines about loss of innocent life at the hands of violent people released from prison or out of jail on bond for violent crimes.

You may remember last July how 7-year-old Colton Ryan Lee, his 75-year-old great-grandmother Marie Ann Martin and her 65-year-old neighbor Martha Reliford all died horrific deaths in their homes in Guntersville. Evidence points to a recently released prison parolee.

Just recently, 3-year-old Camille “Cupcake” McKinney captured our hearts as we held out hope for her safe return only to be heartbroken.

This past week the 20-year-old soldier son (Sloan Harmon) of the St. Clair County district attorney was shot and killed, not in a foreign war. He was shot while driving on an Alabama highway. Indications are, once again, a known violent criminal took his life.

And, in recent weeks we’ve all been worried about Aniah Blanchard, a Homewood community college student who was simply trying to make a purchase in a convenience store.

A suspect in her disappearance was tracked down and arrested. Once again, he has a history of violence, including being out on bond for the near-death beating of a 77-year-old man.

Thankfully, Governor Ivey, along with Attorney General Steve Marshall, presented legislation this past session, which we passed that revamped the Department of Pardons and Parole.

Too many violent criminals were being paroled from prison.

Notice, I repeatedly say violent criminals. And notice I name victims in these cases because we need to remember these violent crimes happened to real people in our state, not some fictional movie or video game.

I believe in rehabilitation. I think job training during incarceration is very important to prevent recidivism.

When a person has served their sentence, everybody is better off if that person is trained for a job, barriers to employment removed and he/she goes to work instead of floating around without hope.

I believe in follow-up to make sure the recently released have hope and a better life and don’t return to previous ways.

I believe there are ways to sentence legal penalties in non-violent cases other than exposure to hardened criminal ways and dangers.

I believe we have to provide human decency and safety for corrections officers and inmates in our prisons.

Once again, our state is under a federal court mandate regarding prisons.

I appreciate the work of Governor Ivey’s team on this issue and Rep. Connie Rowe, Rep. Jim Hill, Rep. Chris England, Sen. Cam Ward and others are working diligently to present facts and potential solutions in the 2020 legislative session.

I think we will see data-driven information and facts to provide good honest legislative debate that will result in real solutions.

I hope to see a report from Governor Ivey’s prison task force filled with facts and viable options. I believe we will!

Thank y’all for letting me represent you in Montgomery!

Your thoughts, comments and ideas are welcomed:

Randall Shedd
District 11, Alabama
House of Representatives
Email randallshedd@icloud.com
Cellular & Text 256-531-6641