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Opinion | Alabama’s corrections system is broken because of the people in charge

An early release program is being blamed after an attempted rape in Foley. But the accused wasn’t released early.

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There is a reason Alabama’s corrections system is broken. Alabama’s conservative leadership wants it to be broken. 

It is truly that simple. They have no desire to fix it. They have no desire to understand its many flaws and injustices. They have no capacity to care about the humans who suffer every day because of their indifference and disregard. 

They don’t even know how it all works. 

If you doubt this, let me tell you about early release and about Bernard Abney. 

In 2005, Abney pleaded guilty to one count of second degree rape and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. He had already been imprisoned for more than a year and a half as he awaited trial — for which the trial court gave him credit, according to court records — putting his release date sometime in 2023. 

But Abney, who apparently conducted himself well enough in prison, was granted early release in January 2023 as part of a program implemented by state lawmakers. That program was designed to alleviate overcrowding in our prisons by releasing and monitoring some incarcerated people who met certain criteria. Abney was one. 

Except, Abney didn’t follow the law. He failed to register as a sex offender and court records show he was re-arrested in February 2023 and required to serve out the remainder of his sentence. Which he did. 

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After being released again – and this time with no monitoring, because he had served his full sentence – Abney allegedly committed another crime. Last week, he was arrested and accused of attempted rape and assault after he allegedly attacked a Foley woman with a knife. 

Now, a reasonably intelligent person who understands how these systems work would look at such a situation and think: Boy, probably not the best idea to put a guy who just served 20 years – who already violated the law just a few months ago – out on the streets with no monitoring or assistance or guidance. 

Ah, but unfortunately, we mostly do not elect such people. 

Instead, we have Ralph Hellmich, mayor of Foley, who attacked the “early release” program, blaming it for allowing Abney to leave prison. And we have Chris Elliott, a state senator who serves on the … let’s see here … JUDICIARY COMMITTEE, who also blamed the “early release” of Abney. 

Elliott told 1819 News: “A number of us said this is a bad idea and you’re going to see instances where people were let out early that then went on to re-offend and commit crimes and it is not a pro-public safety measure and we are seeing those results, unfortunately.”

See, y’all, Chris Elliott tried to warn you that this thing that definitely did not happen would be a problem, even though the exact opposite of what he warned you about was the actual problem.  

It’s a bit of a problem when the people who are literally in charge of making the rules for our corrections system don’t understand the rules that they’ve made. 

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Early release had zero to do with Abney’s crimes last week. The early release monitoring program worked exactly the way it was supposed to work, and there’s at least a chance that Abney would not have committed a violent crime had he been forced into a monitoring program instead of being released. 

Abney’s situation is exactly the sort of situation that Rep. Chris England – an advocate of criminal justice reform and a frequent critic of the stagnant pardons and paroles system – has warned everyone about repeatedly. When you skip over the parole process, which is happening with unheard of frequency in this state – we paroled just eight percent of eligible prisoners in 2023 – you instead end up with a system that simply tosses incarcerated people out on the streets with little, if any, monitoring. 

Somehow, that has been deemed better “public safety” than allowing incarcerated people with good track records during their incarceration to exit early and enter monitoring programs that assures someone is keeping track of them – monitoring their living situations, making sure they get employment, keeping track of their mental health, watching for signs of trouble. 

But that doesn’t sound tough on crime. 

It sounds so much tougher to say you forced criminals to serve out their sentences. Or as Elliott put it: “Why are we letting bad people out of jail, and should we be doing that? And of course the answer is no.” 

Because the good guys wear white and the bad guys wear black and they’re all so easy to differentiate. It’s basic math, guys. 

The simple fact is this: Until we put people in charge who care enough to understand how the systems and programs they’re in charge of actually work, we will remain hopelessly lost. Our corrections system will remain hopelessly broken. 

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And instead of being tough on crime, our system will remain exactly what it is right now – a danger to all of us.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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