I am not real sure the people of Alabama know it, but our state’s courts are facing a real crisis. This is not the first time that our state’s judicial system has faced a crisis. In 1973, a new article to the state’s constitution was approved that took our court system from one of the worst in the nation to one of the best. Gone were the mismatch of courts and rules, and in its place was a uniform structure of courts and uniform rules of court. That was a major accomplishment that received national attention. In fact the new system was seen as a model for other states to follow.
The changes the people of Alabama implemented in 1973 to streamline our judiciary have allowed Alabama to make many advancements in its court system. In recent years Alabama has been a leader in the move to electronic filing and the establishment of specialty courts such as drug courts and veterans’ courts. Unfortunately, the innovations that Alabama has made are now in grave danger. Unless something is done, by the Alabama Legislature, our citizens will be adversely affected. Sadly, over the past decade, Alabama’s courts have been grossly underfunded. This year, the budget for the entire court system currently makes up less than one percent of the entire state budget. That can’t be tolerated and wouldn’t be if the people of Alabama understood what has happened to our courts.
The total appropriations for the trial and appellate courts have actually gone down for the past eight years. The proposed 2016 is several million dollars less than it was even in 2009. The only way that the judiciary has been able to operate within the funds appropriated for it is by eliminating personnel, increasing efficiencies through technology, and extraordinary efforts by court personnel. Bailiffs are no longer available for many trial judges. This leaves a courtroom with no security, which can’t be justified.
The office of circuit clerk is very important in each county. The staffs in the Circuit Clerks’ offices are a mere shadow of what they once were. The staffing levels are so low for many circuit clerks that they have been forced to close their office to the public one day a week just to work on clearing the backlog without disruption. This means that citizens won’t receive adequate services from these essential offices.
The staffs of the appellate courts have also been drastically cut. For example, the Court of Criminal Appeals, which hears every death penalty case in the State, has been forced to eliminate almost one third of its staff in the past decade. Our courts are now at a point where they have less than even the staff required to maintain essential operations. Eliminating staff and closing clerks’ offices does nothing to reduce the workload and demands of the court system.
It’s the people of Alabama who are the most harmed when Courts are not adequately funded. Backlogs in criminal dockets mean that those charged with crimes sit in our county jails longer, resulting in the counties having to pay more for their incarceration. Crime victims and their families agonize longer waiting for justice to be served. Small businesses suffer when they are denied access to the courts. Children and their parents suffer when custody issues languish on backlogged dockets. The lives of the victims of domestic violence are at risk when they are turned away at the courthouse because offices are closed when they attempt to obtain a protection from abuse order. Innovations such as drug courts and veterans’ courts provide tremendous cost savings to the taxpayers compared to incarceration. These programs are being hurt because of a lack of funds.
Since on average it costs $44 per day to house an inmate in an Alabama prison, every person who graduates from drug court instead of going to prison saves the state more than $16,000 per year. Moreover, those who complete drug court are much less likely to return to criminal activity than those who are incarcerated. These programs, however, are not free. Inadequate funding for the judiciary will lead to the reduction and possible elimination of such programs.
The irony of all this is that Alabama’s courts generate almost the entire amount that the legislature appropriates them with fees, fines, and other court costs. According to a study by the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, the State’s court system is putting as much money in to the State’s general fund as it takes out of it. That means if the court budget is cut any further, Alabama’s courts would be putting more money into the State general fund than they take out.
Article VI, Section 149 of Alabama’s Constitution mandates that the courts be adequately funded, stating “Adequate and reasonable appropriations shall be made by the legislature for the entire unified judicial system…”
If things are going to get better, the citizens of Alabama must step up to the plate and champion the cause to ensure that the courts of our state have the resources they need to provide the justice to which Alabama citizens are entitled. In 1973, the people of Alabama voted to bring a 19th century court system into the 20th century. Now the system – once a model – is sliding backward and at a fast pace.
The Alabama Legislature must now make sure that the proper investment is made to take our state’s 20th century court system into the 21st century. The voice of the people of Alabama in this endeavor is just as crucial today as it was 45 years ago. The Alabama Legislature must adequately fund the state’s court system at every level.
Contact us today for a free legal consultation with an experienced attorney.
Fields marked *may be required for submission.
If you would like to subscribe to the Jere Beasley Report digital edition, simply visit our Subscriptions page and provide the necessary information or call us at 800-898-2034.
Attorney Advertising - Prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome.