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Stretched thin: Judges lament lack of funding of mental health, corrections

Cullman Times - 9/16/2017

Sept. 16--The state's failure to adequately fund its mental health care and prison systems puts the burden on local court systems -- stretched by a decade of budget cuts --and the community as a whole.

That's the grim, yet familiar message Cullman County judges delivered Friday during the Cullman Area Chamber of Commerce's Community Luncheon during a Q & A session that covered topics such as truth in sentencing -- or rather, the lack thereof -- child custody, the possibility of a judicial annex and mediation center as well as immigration enforcement and courthouse security.

A bulk of the discussion centered on obstacles facing the court, namely the inability to hold habitual offenders in the appropriate institutions, either prison or a mental health facility. Circuit Judge Martha Williams cited an instance where two inmates suffering with mental issues at the Cullman County Detention Center "disintegrated" during incarceration.

"I issued an order for the inmates to be transported to Taylor Hardin (the state's facility for inmates with mental health issues), and weeks went by without anyone coming to pick them up," Williams explained. "It got to the point where I cited the state Director of Mental Health for contempt for failing to comply with the order, and finally they were placed."

District Judge Kim Chaney didn't mince words about the impact of the state's closure of large in-patient mental health care facilities.

"The criminal justice system is making up for the lack of funding of mental health," Chaney said.

Both he and Williams took issue with the Legislature's sweeping prison reform -- aimed at reducing the dangerous 150 percent overcrowding levels -- and its effect on law enforcement and the community's safety.

"They created a new category of "non-violent" offenses, such as drug possession, theft and burglary, where someone has to commit eight felonies before a judge can send them to prison," Chaney said. "I can sentence someone to 20 years, but the DOC (Department of Corrections) can turn around and release them in 90 days."

"There is no truth in sentencing at all. It was promised, but I haven't seen it yet."

Williams urged attendees to talk to their legislators about addressing the issue but conceded it was a difficult issue to win support.

"People don't want to pay for something that impacts them in a way they don't think it does," she said.

On the topic of judicial override -- which until recently allowed Alabama judges to overrule a jury recommending life in prison and impose the death penalty -- Circuit Judge Greg Nicolas said it was "wise" legislators changed the law, however he stood by his support of the death penalty in certain capital murder cases. Currently, there are three capital murder cases pending trial, and 12 murder cases total.

Chaney said in regard to a proposed judicial annex, one option could be a joint effort between the county and city.

"We've got four judges currently doing the work of five and half," said District Judge Rusty Turner, "but as far as funding it (annex), we're 30 years away."

Tiffeny Owens can be reached at towens@cullmantimes.com or at 256-734-2131, ext. 135.

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(c)2017 The Cullman Times (Cullman, Ala.)

Visit The Cullman Times (Cullman, Ala.) at www.cullmantimes.com

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