Paul DeMarco: Alabama leaders should advance public safety legislation to address state’s plague of violent crime

Paul DeMarco | 06.03.24 – Paul DeMarco: Alabama leaders should advance public safety legislation to address state’s plague of violent crime (

This past session of the Alabama Legislature seemed to have more than its fair share of controversial issues. Between gambling, ethics reform, school choice and IVF legislation, it was hard to keep up. 

But what really needs attention is legislation related to the Alabama criminal justice system.

There were multiple efforts to make it harder to put criminals in prison but also more proposals for convicted felons to be released early from state prisons. Thankfully, most of these bills failed, but there is a lot of money being spent on liberal advocacy groups, and some members of the media are eager to push this type of legislation, making the state’s already terrible crime problem even worse. 

There is no question Alabama is seeing a plague of violent crime that is taking a devastating toll on the state. It is not just the constant shootings in Birmingham, Montgomery or Mobile; even small towns like Dadeville and Stockton are experiencing mass violence.

We are only five months into 2024 and Birmingham has already surpassed last year’s number of homicides. Let that sink in.

Everyone is looking for solutions to solve the state’s crime problem, but to address the problems you must first look at the root causes. 

For starters, there is a nationwide shortage of police officers due to anti-police rhetoric. Alabama has been affected by that rhetoric. Jefferson County alone – between Birmingham and the County Sheriff’s office – is about 400 to 450 officers short of their need compared to five years ago, leaving fewer officers on the streets to respond to urgent 911 calls and less manpower to investigate crimes, make arrests and build strong cases to get convictions. The clearance rate of homicides is way less than 50% in Birmingham. All the gratuitous attacks on police officers have also hurt the morale of police officers. Recruitment is a problem across the state, with fewer people wanting to serve.

Adding fuel to the fire is both the lack of prosecution in some cases and weak sentences in others. Some state judges allow violent criminals back on the street after arrest with a low bond, or a short sentence following conviction. 

Finally, you have a slew of far-left advocacy groups in Alabama working to release felons back on the streets. Funded in part by large donors, these groups have sizeable staffs that roam the halls of the statehouse lobbying lawmakers to pass bad laws to open the prison doors and make it harder for prosecutors to keep those who endanger the public locked up. Their talking points are slick, and they spin the statistics to fit their narrative.

Unfortunately, lawmakers are often swayed during the session’s hectic pace. For example, SB 312, a bill allowing inmates to participate virtually in parole hearings, passed the Senate unanimously. Senators found no fault with this concept and rubber-stamped it. However, when SB 312 arrived in the House, a few legislators realized its flaws and offered various amendments and it never made it to the House floor.  

There has also been a concerted effort by these advocacy groups and some state media to attack the chair of the parole board, Leigh Gwathney. They dislike Gwathney because she actually puts public safety first and has reversed a careless parole board that let out violent felons early, who then returned to the streets to commit more crimes. 

What is the state to do?

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, Attorney General Steve Marshall, Senate President Pro Tem Greg Reed and Speaker of the House Nathaniel Ledbetter should jointly assemble a task force of the state’s law enforcement, prosecutors and victims’ rights advocates to look at crime in the state. The task force should then make recommendations, including the following:

  1. Truth in sentencing following the federal model, which requires that the length of time in prison more closely resemble the actual sentence by the judge. Long promised, this was to be the second part of sentencing reform that saw the passage of sentencing guidelines. The truth in sentencing never followed the approval of the new guidelines.
  2. Ensure that state prosecutors have the technology and other necessary forensic tools to assist them in proving their cases in an increasingly digital world. 
  3. Employment incentives to join local law enforcement should be approved. A lot of productive energy has been spent on the state’s workforce development. Let’s apply that to assess how to recruit and retain police officers and sheriff’s deputies. 
  4. Study the state’s prison capacities. The state is already under the microscope regarding the conditions of the state’s corrections facilities. There are two new mega prisons being built, however, we must ensure there will be enough space to keep those incarcerated for crimes behind bars.
  5. Look at how violent criminals are being kept in prison. There are too many inmates who were sentenced to prison for horrible crimes who are being allowed out into the community on work release and community housing.

Now is the time to address these issues, not later. The task force should hear from the stakeholders, look at what is working in other states and then draft legislation for consideration by lawmakers. The governor can call a special session focusing on public safety or make it her priority for the next legislative session. In the past, issues such as increasing penalties for child predators and reforming the prior weak parole board were significant enough to get the attention of state leaders. 

Now is the time to act to ensure that public safety is the number one priority of Alabama’s public officials.

Paul DeMarco is a former member of the Alabama House of Representatives, former chair of the House Judiciary Committee, a columnist for The Trussville Tribune and can be found on X, formerly Twitter, at @Paul_DeMarco.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of 1819 News. To comment, please send an email with your name and contact information to [email protected]

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