March 26, 2010
Dear Chief Justice Cobb,
Thanks for sending to me, per my request, a copy of the story that appeared in The Birmingham News (AL), and in other news outlets, regarding your tentative plans to host a meeting for state officials (district attorneys, judges and corrections officers) to discuss Alabama’s overcrowded prisons and the high recidivism rate, in September. I am not sure if you had read my email dated “March 12, 2010” at the time you sent me this article. After first reading the story attempts to put my hands back on it, days later, went in vain. My search, both, in the Press-Register and on Google was fruitless.
Therefore, my email to you was written from memory, my apologies for any inaccuracies or misrepresentations as I went on to share it with my audience. It’s my intention to do the same with this piece of follow-up correspondence. I believe it has value well beyond Alabama’s state lines.
This morning, I re-read the story for only the second time. I believe one of your quotations, from the article, best describes the problem facing you, your colleagues in the criminal justice system and the public.
What you’ve stated below, if put into mathematical terms is invalid. The idea of being smarter has no direct correlation with being tougher on criminals, which leads to reducing recidivism, [while] saving tax dollars. Math is built on truths, 2 + 2 always equals four. Your verbal equation with each independent variable is not true, if it was then you wouldn’t have this problem, you wouldn’t have this crisis on your hands.
Saying there is a high recidivism rate among those who do time in Alabama’s prisons, Cobb added, “I’m convinced that we could be smarter and tougher in ways that will reduce recidivism but save tax dollars … I want to stop people (from) re-offending by our.., doing the hard work of fixing people instead of just filling prisons.”
Sue Bell Cobb, Alabama Chief Justice
Birmingham News (AL)
– March 7, 2010
Trying harder or being smarter won’t cut it. You don’t need to be smarter, you need to be honest. You need to face the present reality. The state’s prisons are burgeoning and conventional wisdom for running the courts, these facilities, and the parole and probation systems doesn’t work. With every crisis comes an opportunity. Seize the opportunity by taking the state in a different direction. Few men in your position, as the Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice, including most governors would dare entertain my suggestion, but maybe a daughter, wife and mother would.
Every piece of this formula (including society, local and state politicians, law enforcement, the criminal justice system – district attorneys, judges, defense attorneys, defendants, the penal system (inmates, wardens, corrections officers and probation officers) makes up the sum total of this failed system. With the nation’s highest overcrowding rate at 195%, according to a recent Pew study, calling Alabama’s prison system a failure seems pretty accurate. Real change is a serious undertaking, a bold challenge with, both, short-term and long-term consequences.
Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.
– Albert Einstein (1879-1955), German-born Swiss-American theoretical physicist, philosopher
Everything has to be scrutinized like never before, including everyone’s attitudes or beliefs. These beliefs are contributing to the pain and suffering for all involved, the victims and their families, the defendants and their families, including the Alabama citizen and taxpayer. You need to get honest, not tougher. Do your part by steering the process in the right direction. Taking a long overdue inventory much like a business owner has to do, each year, might be a good start. Shortcuts in the process will only return us back to this same archaic system that we know all to well.
If you were named CEO of a hospital yet to be built, how would you put it together? From its design and operations, the patient and staff experience, to focusing on your patient’s wellbeing and his or her ultimate discharge back into society. A county jail, a state or federal prison are just names, they’re just labels. Like hospitals, all of them house very sick people, staff included. Everyone gets in affected by the virus, the cancer of insanity, the cancer of crime… Call it whatever you want.
What if being gentler is actually the smarter path, the wiser path to take that leads to long-term results of not only reducing recidivism, but also returning a healthier person to society? What is the mission statement of Alabama’s criminal justice system? What is the end goal – is it life or death? Is your goal to harden an already “harden criminal” even more so who’s living in toxic conditions and eating toxic food or to soften him or her up, help them to regain their humanity long before they’re paroled and “re-integrated” back into society? The former is a mindset that generally brings out the worst in everyone, society included. It’s cold and heartless.
Nobody wins, not the victims, not the convicted, no one. The latter, offers personal growth, hope and with direction it gives the guilty a chance to recovery from their insanity, not from being a bad or evil person. They’re merely slaves to their own insanity, that’s all. So are you and everyone else who lives outside these gated communities. Judging them repeatedly has accomplished little or nothing, but understanding them leads to growth for all. Their childhood history often explains volumes, most never stood a chance to experience a so-called normal life. Our society is so quick to throw “the down and out” away. I know, all to well, from personal experience. It doesn’t fit well with our Norman Rockwell landscapes of America, but was that ever reality to begin with? The only cure to their ailment is personal freedom not slavery. Free people don’t self-destruct or commit acts of violence against a free society. They lead revolutions instead by, either, the sword or by the pen, or, both.
Of course, we don’t have a free society. What we know as freedom is really slavery. That’s our nation’s history. We just call it “freedom” repeatedly until we all believe it to be so. It’s just another label, just like “asylums”, “jails” and “prisons”. They can all be places of, either, healing or further destruction. Their values (these institutions) are simply a reflection of our society. So, who’s really running the asylum – is it the inmates/the mental patients or the staff and our society? Individuals who hate themselves also hate the world. That can be said of, both, the good and the bad. Their conflicted minds and hearts lead to personal and social destruction. This can be seen just as easily at the top of our society, as at the bottom.
They can be impossible to live with or to work for, but they’re still held in high regard by the social or political establishment. Their works may destroy their fellow man and/or the environment while creating wealth, accumulating fame and power in the name of “capitalism”, “progress” or whatever. Again, they’re just more labels. Teaching a wounded animal a new trick is pointless. What’s the value of getting some schooling or job training in prison when you’re “eaten up” with cancer? Those incarcerated are dying or are already spirituality dead. These soulless bodies are waiting to be released as another day passes before them.
How many more murder trials will be held in Alabama to convince its citizens not to kill? How many more executions will be held in this state to convince its citizens not to kill? When will a state prosecutor, a judge or a defense attorney finally come to their senses and see how pointless this entire system has become when their calendar is covered up in nothing, but criminal trials? Hasn’t crime become big business for all and there’s no real incentive to change it? Money and egos often come at the expense of justice, at the expense of truth. You’re looking at the individual acts against society with all these individual trials instead of addressing the systematic breakdown of society. We’re all sick, we’re all insane. Hello!
Criminals and their victims are merely symptoms of a bigger problem, not the actual problem. That’s why a full jailhouse has never served as a deterrent. That’s why Alabama’s death row and “Yellow Mama” (the old electric chair) have never prevented a single murder. There’s no connection between someone being in a fit of rage, caught up in the heat of passion and entertaining the thought of life in prison or death by execution. So, what’s the root problem?
You’re looking at the small picture, the state against this defendant, the state against that defendant… and not the big picture – all crime. How’s the current approach working for you? It’s not. Your prisons are slap-full and “your repeat customers” who are unable to function in the real world keep coming back for their “three hots and a cot”. The only thing that seems to be working is that the average resident is scared to death of any strange face, especially a black one. Under the current laws and policies, we are all losers. Society’s moral decay can be read about each and everyday in the morning newspaper and seen on the 10 o’clock news, like a list of obituaries.
Getting your participants of judges, prosecutors and corrections officers to change their mindset, to change their hearts from an attitude of running a penal system to an infirmary will be the greatest challenge of all and a real political threat for some involved. I would argue that changing their attitudes will be much harder than transforming the broken men and women serving time in Alabama’s dilapidated prisons. Many of these honorable careers have been built on hate, judging and vengeance and not on having compassion, empathy and wisdom for everyone. This transition will definitely take some time, there are no quick fixes. This crisis didn’t happen overnight nor will it be solved by sun-up.
This might cost some people their careers, if they’re to suddenly retreat from the heated rhetoric and drum beating against criminals and murders to acknowledge the insanity of the whole damn thing, of this society that built it and in which the criminal justice system currently operates within. However, I can think of nothing else that would be more honest, noble and would emulate the work and teachings of Jesus Christ than pursuing this course of action. If we raise the bottom of society up, surely we will raise the rest of society up at the same time. Who can be against this?
No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.
– Albert Einstein
Change must happen! It’s time for a revolution.
Copyright © 2010. All Rights Reserved. “Dear Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb – A follow-up email.” by Ted Burnett.
I am available for speaking, consulting and political advising. My other essays can be viewed at my blog – http://www.toxicnation.blogspot.com/. I can be contacted via email at – email@example.com. My biography can be viewed at http://www.tedburnettresume.blogspot.com.