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Attorney General Steve Marshall: When criminal justice policy meets reality

Late last month, the people of Alabama were repulsed to learn that former pastor and serial rapist, Mack Charles Andrews, Jr., was released from prison after serving only half of his 15-year sentence. What most Alabamians might not know is that Andrews was not released by mistake, not through error or misapplication of law, not by an especially lenient judge or parole board — Andrews was freed by broken policies adopted into law by the State of Alabama.

Coincidentally, a law enacted by the Alabama Legislature just a few short weeks ago could have given Andrews the chance to get out even earlier. The Education Incentive Time Act aimed to provide inmates with the prospect of earning a sentence reduction upon the completion of certain education programs while incarcerated. As passed by the Senate, the only prisoners not eligible to pursue a sentence reduction were those sentenced to life imprisonment or death, and those serving time for committing a sex offense against a child. Because our laws define a “child” as one who is under the age of 12, and because Andrews’ charges involved victims over the age of 12, the bill would have made him eligible for early parole consideration, on top of the near-automatic “good time” sentence reduction that he already received.

My office fought to ensure that this legislation did not become law and succeeded in getting all sex offenders and most violent offenders excluded from the significant double benefit of free education and the possibility of early release. Incredibly, we were met with fierce opposition in doing so. In recent weeks, lazy journalists and criminal-justice warriors have lamented the fact that more prisoners were not included in the new law, while conspicuously failing to mention that the now-excluded offenders were rapists, murderers, armed robbers, and the like.

A look back at the bills filed over the last two quadrenniums signals both a disturbing trend and a cognitive dissonance in Alabama’s criminal justice policy. The trend: there is far more time and energy spent on legislation that benefits the criminal rather than crime victims and society at large. And the dissonance? While our state’s policymaking reflects a belief that we live in a low- crime utopia, FBI data reminds us that we live in the seventh-most violent state in the country. You don’t dig yourself out of that hole by repeating fictional rhetoric, blindly slashing sentences, and ignoring the voices of victims.

What do you do? You start by building prisons that are adequate to house the increasingly violent criminal population in Alabama. Then you address the revolving door-problem and impose penalties that change the mindset of individuals who feel that they can rob people at gun point or break into their homes, again and again and again, with little recourse. Then you figure out whether our law enforcement officials and prosecutors have the tools — legally and materially — to keep our streets safe. Perhaps, most importantly, you elect leaders who care about your safety.

While Alabamians living in any of our major cities can tell you that violent crime is on the rise — take it from me, I live in Montgomery — the policies being enacted suggest a completely different story, a false reality, and a dangerous delusion. Crime victims are a forgotten class, law enforcement is dejected, and violent crime continues to rise while lawmakers congratulate themselves on the enactment of progressive criminal justice policies.

Prioritizing public safety should not have to be hard-fought, but I will continue to fight to ensure that the people of Alabama can live free from the fear of violence. It has been my privilege to do so for the last five years and would be my great honor to continue this fight on your behalf.

Steve Marshall is Alabama’s 48th Attorney General