Before this session, my fellow legislators and I understood that our state faced a financial reckoning – especially in terms of the General Fund Budget – which funds all non-Education spending in our state. Vital programs instrumental to the daily lives of Alabama’s citizens are being cut to the bone – and then filleted even further because of the financial realities of state budgeting during the continuing and interminable Great Recession.
As Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, I began thinking about ways to apply a conservative, pro-business and small government philosophy to our courts and our entire judicial system. Alabama cannot continue funding agencies like the Administrative Office of Courts, Department of Corrections, Department of Public Safety and the symbiotic agencies that maintain law and order in our states at the same rates that we did during boom times. Nor can we afford to allow court cases to languish, prisoners to be released and police officers and highway patrolmen to be laid off.
Faced with this Gordian Knot of adequate funding or endangering our citizenry, we came up with a series of legislation that allowed us to cut the costs of these agencies while maintaining the level of services our citizens expect and deserve, and not putting our citizens in harm’s way.
Not all of these bills are perfect, nor are they all original. I feel that it is always better to try to do something and achieve part of it then stand on ceremony and achieve nothing. I also believe that many of my colleagues around the country have had a chance to implement and study best practices-type legislation that provided us a road map to work from.
Chief among the legislation that I have proposed, sponsored and are in various stages of being passed by the legislature and forwarded to Governor Bentley for his signature are Sentencing Reform, Private Judges, Expedited Litigation for cases under $100,000 and Cyber Crimes Legislation – all of which seek to modernize our laws and streamline the processes of our judicial system while allowing our state and our citizens access to justice and due process under the law.
The Sentencing Reform bill has passed the senate and is expected to move through the house before Sine Die. It comes after numerous attempts over the past several years to tackle this issue. They overcomplicated the issue and it was killed because it tried to be all things to all people. We took the examples of Virginia and Texas and our reforms will result in truth in sentencing for violent offenders, while allowing judges several options in how to punish non-violent offenders while pushing them to stay employed and be productive citizens. It will also avoid the widespread release of dangerous criminals back into Alabama’s communities like California did – which is something no state can afford, no matter what their budget problems.
The Private Judges Bill, sponsored in the Senate by myself, Senator Tom Whatley and Senator Jerry Fielding – two lawyers and a former judge – and in the House by Rep. Mike Jones has passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting Governor Bentley’s signature. It would allow two parties involved in a lawsuit to agree to pay for a judge to hear their case immediately at no expense to the state. There are, of course, guidelines for the judges appointed in these disputes: they must have 6 years on the bench and be in good standing with the bar and all continuing legal education requirements up to date.
Another example of outside the box thinking that will allow citizens and companies involved in a civil suit where damages are less than $100,000 to have a shortened litigation process. The lynch pin to this process was requiring that the discovery process in these cases was required to be cut in half. When this legislation was enacted in Texas it greatly shortened the period of time it took to have case decided in court. This has the dual effect of shortening court dockets for our already overburdened court systems, and brings money into state coffers.
The Cyber Crime legislation, sponsored by myself and Rep. Paul DeMarco, will bring Alabama’s code dealing with computer and internet-based crimes into the twenty first century. Modernizing these laws will protect Alabama’s citizens and companies from internet predators and sophisticated thieves while providing our law enforcement agencies with the tools they need to prosecute these criminals.
The main emphasis with each of these bills is not solely to save money for the state, or to try to privatize functions or emphasize a conservative governing philosophy – it is to do all three. These are all good pieces of legislation that are right for our state no matter the time – but as we all know sometimes it takes a crisis to get truly creative and come together to solve problems. I believe my colleagues in the Legislative, Executive and Judicial branches have done this – and I commend them for their help and leadership on these issues.