Revisiting Alabama

Old times there are not forgotten. -- "Dixie" by Daniel Decatur Emmett

It was bad news for Alabama, a state that had just gotten two doses of very good news. The first had come from the United States Supreme Court, and the second from Robert Bentley, its governor.

On March 7, 2016, the United States Supreme Court had patiently explained to Chief Justice Roy Moore and his somewhat dull colleagues on the Alabama Supreme Court, that when a same sex couple adopted two children in Georgia and the adoption was valid in Georgia, Alabama did not have the right to opine, as Roy and his colleagues had done, that the adoption was void and not entitled to full faith and credit in Alabama. That was the first piece of good news.

The other piece of good news came on February 23, 2016. On that date the Governor announced that he was introducing the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative Act. That was great news for those who were incarcerated in Alabama prisons. The need for the Act, although not a cure all for all the ills of the Alabama prison system, was obvious.

According to a report by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama prisons have a population that is almost double the number they were designed to accommodate. Instead of holding 13,318 prisoners, the prisons are home to 24,000 prisoners. The reason there is such crowding, according to the Center, is that Alabama incarcerates "more of its citizens, per capita, than all but two other states." To make matters worse for those incarcerated, Alabama ranks last in in the country in what it spends per prisoner. The governor's plan, if approved by the legislature, would provide for the construction of four new prisons, and would, as Governor Bentley said when introducing his proposal, make Alabama "a national leader in safe and effective incarceration of inmates." Although his comments were hyperbolic, there was clearly a need for his proposal.

On March 11th and 14th, 2016, shortly before the Alabama State Senate was to begin consideration of the governor's proposal to issue $800 million in state bonds to fund construction of new facilities, there were two riots at the William C. Holden Correctional Facility. That prison is home to 900 prisoners even though it is designed to accommodate only 581. (It is also home to Alabama's execution chamber which, from time to time, serves to reduce the overcrowding in the prison.) During the riots two prison officials, including the warden, were stabbed by the inmates.

The governor's announcement of his proposal was greeted with enthusiasm by those concerned with the state's prisons, but received a somewhat less enthusiastic response from legislators who are reluctant to authorize the issuance of up to $800 million in bonds to fund the effort. Comments made by legislators, following the governor's announcement, indicated that the proposal would have a rough time in the legislature. It now turns out that the legislature is probably off the hook. That is good news for the legislators and bad new for prisoners and others who hoped that at long last the state would address severe overcrowding and its attendant problems. It is also bad news for the governor.

On April 5thth the legislature returned from its Easter vacation. It is no longer interested in prisons. It is no longer interested in prison reform. Upon returning from its Easter vacation, a group of Alabama lawmakers said they were introducing articles of impeachment against the governor. They decided to do that because on March 23, 2016, it was publicly disclosed that Governor Bentley had made what were described as "inappropriate and sexually charged remarks" to one of his female aides. Although not articulated, it was hinted that the behavior might have included more than just sexually charged remarks. In Alabama, where perceived sexual misbehavior is taken seriously, news of his behavior shocked his Alabama constituents and their elected representatives.

The governor has admitted that he made made inappropriate remarks to his female aide but denies that there was an affair. He has tried to move beyond the crisis affecting his administration, explaining, as recently as April 4, that he has asked God for forgiveness. It is unknown how God responded, but as of this writing it appears that the legislators may proceed with the impeachment. The process is not complicated.

If a simple majority in the Alabama House of Representatives votes to impeach, a trial will be conducted in the Alabama Senate. The presiding officer at the trial in the senate will be the constitutionally impaired Chief Justice, Roy Moore. In the House proceedings, Mike Hubbard, the speaker of the House, will be the presiding officer. There is a chance, however, that he will not be able to serve. That is because he was indicted on 23 felony counts in 2014 and is going to be tried on those felony counts beginning April 11, 2016. Unlike the governor's sexual indiscretion that may cost the governor his job, in Alabama, apparently, a 23 count criminal indictment does not have the same effect on a mere legislator. Go figure. Christopher Brauchli can be emailed at brauchli.56@post.harvard.edu. For political commentary see his web page at http://humanraceandothersports.com