Solutions for judicial reform

Published 2:28 pm Tuesday, June 12, 2012

By CAM WARD / Guest Columnist

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.

As Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, I began thinking about ways to apply a conservative, pro-business and small government philosophy to our entire judicial system. Alabama cannot continue funding agencies such as 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.

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.

Not all of these bills are perfect, nor are they all original. 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.

The sentencing reform bill has been signed into law by the governor and will save the State of Alabama millions of dollars, while still keeping crime rates low.

Our reforms will result in correct 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 our communities like California had to do.

The private judges bill, sponsored in the Senate by myself, Sen. Tom Whatley and Sen. Jerry Fielding and in the House by Rep. Mike Jones, has passed both houses of the Legislature and is awaiting Gov. 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. Guidelines for the judges appointed in these disputes would include a requirement of at least six years on the bench, good standing with the bar and up-to-date continuing legal education requirements.

The expedited legislation bill will allow citizens and companies involved in a civil suit where damages are less than $100,000 to have a shortened litigation process. The discovery process in these cases will be required to be cut in half. 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 modernize laws dealing with computer and internet-based crimes to 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.

These are all new laws 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 commend my colleagues for their help and leadership on these issues.

Cam Ward is a state senator from Alabaster.