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Surprising facts about Alabama’s justice system

Justice Day is among the most popular program days because it reveals surprising truths about Alabama’s complex system of courts and corrections. As we look ahead to the next Justice Day on February 8, 2024, take this challenge to see what you know about key points discussed earlier in 2023 by Bennet Wright and judges Michael Streety and Stephen Wallace.


  1. Alabama chooses judges differently from other states.

FALSE: Alabama is among a handful of states that select judges through partisan elections. (There are a couple of exceptions: Alabama’s governor can appoint judges to fill vacancies between elections. And municipal court judges are selected by local governing bodies.) Streety says the partisan factor makes little sense “because we make judgments according to the law, and we can’t let politics influence that.” News stories often state a judge’s party affiliation or hint that a governor-appointed judge will share her politics, which can impact public perception of judges and their decisions. However, “we have a Republican governor who has appointed Democratic judges,” Streety says.


  1. Probate judges in Alabama are required to have a law degree.

FALSE: Probate judges typically oversee everything from estates and elections to marriage licenses and adoptions. However, most Alabama counties do not require these judges to be lawyers. (Jefferson County is an exception.) Wallace surmises that the lack of a legal background is a vestige of centuries past, when the role of the probate judge, particularly in rural areas, was that of a politician who managed the county.


  1. Birmingham-area courts are more diverse than Alabama state courts.

TRUE: Locally, we have “a majority of minority judges”—a change that has occurred over approximately 10 years, Streety says. However, no minority judges currently serve on Alabama appellate courts or the state supreme court. “I’m not saying those courts are unfair, but people want to relate to those in authority,” he says. “They want to make sure those authorities understand who they are and their circumstances so that the decisions the authorities make are just.” You can help ensure that judges reflect the communities they represent, Streety adds. “The public needs to take an interest in judicial candidates up for election because we make important decisions that impact people’s lives drastically and instantly.”


  1. Alabama classifies more criminal conduct as felonies than most other states.

TRUE: Wright offers two reasons: First, theft in Alabama becomes a felony when the value of the stolen property hits $500. Most states have raised that minimum threshold—some start at $2,500. Second, Alabama is one of the few states where the unlawful possession of any controlled substance is considered a felony. The only exception is the first-time personal use of marijuana, which is a misdemeanor—but any subsequent marijuana use after a conviction brings a felony charge. Wright says the number of felonies pulls many people into the criminal justice system, which impacts the state’s budget because Alabama pays for incarceration or community supervision programs for felony offenders. (Counties are in charge of people convicted of misdemeanors.)


  1. Judges across the state follow a standard for sentencing lengths.

FALSE: Each judge interprets the laws differently, which means two people convicted of the same crime in separate courtrooms might receive different sentences. But parole boards also play a pivotal role in how much prison time someone serves, Wright says. “It sounds counterintuitive, but if John Doe gets a 40-year sentence, and Jane Doe gets a 60-year sentence, that doesn’t mean she will serve longer than him,” he explains. The board could parole Jane Doe at 15 years, for example, while requiring John Doe to serve the full sentence.


  1. Specialty courts, such as Jefferson County’s Drug, DUI, Mental Health, Theft, and Veterans courts, help keep people out of prison.

TRUE: Specialty, or therapeutic, courts connect people accused of low-level offenses with local intervention services. Not only does that keep them out of prison, but if they are successful, then their cases can be reduced or dismissed—and they might be able to avoid future trouble. “The hope is that when they leave our supervision, they’ll have insights into their substance abuse or mental health and be equipped with coping mechanisms to deal with the triggers,” Wallace says. “They also will know where to get help so that they’re not left to their own devices.” Most Alabama counties have a drug court; Jefferson County offers more specialty courts because it partners with organizations including UAB to provide diagnosis and treatment services. Jefferson County also supplies a majority of specialty-court funding so that “we don’t have to rely on fines and fees from people who are the least able to pay,” Wallace notes.


  1. Alabama is building all-new prisons for its 21,000 inmates.

FALSE: In 2021 the Legislature authorized the construction of two new 4,500-bed prisons for men in Elmore and Escambia counties. The estimated price was $1.2 billion, but inflation is pushing construction costs higher. At the same time, the state needs to renovate its 24 existing prisons, a project requiring at least $900 million to bring those facilities up to code without adding capacity, Wright says. Many prisons need new roofs and floors, sewer upgrades, and kitchen and laundry replacements, for starters. Most of the budget for the Department of Corrections—approximately $700 million—funds staff salaries and benefits as well as inmate health care, leaving a small portion for repairs and maintenance.


  1. Alabama prisons face a staffing shortage.

TRUE: The Department of Corrections has had an employee attrition rate above 75 percent in the first three years of employment, Wright says. Why? “A lot of people in Alabama want prisons to be tough places, but correctional officers and prison staff are exposed to the same conditions as the inmates”—including a lack of air conditioning, he explains. Low salaries have led employees to seek higher-paying positions in police and sheriff’s departments. Also, the 24 prisons are scattered across the state, mostly in rural areas, and new employees often don’t get to choose where they work. “There aren’t many of us who would sign up voluntarily for that,” Wright says. He notes that the state, facing a federal court order to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers, is attempting to address the staffing issue. Earlier this year, Governor Ivey raised the starting salary to just above $50,000.


  1. The new prisons will solve the capacity problem.

FALSE: Alabama needs to address the issues underlying the constant flow of people into its criminal justice system, Wright says. “A majority of people convicted of crimes in Alabama struggle with addiction, mental health issues, poverty, a lack of education, a lack of opportunity, or a lack of hope. That covers probably 95 percent of the people coming through circuit courts.” Building community infrastructure across the state—especially affordable, efficient, and effective mental health treatment—could make a substantial impact, he says.