Sue Bell Cobb, who recently stepped down from her post as leader of the state’s court system, spent much of her 45-minute speech talking on the need for sentencing reform in Alabama.
“We have the most overcrowded prison system in the United States,” Cobb said. “We are also fourth or fifth in the percentage of people who we put behind bars, yet we are the least funded prison system in the United States.”
Cobb said there are currently around 26,500 people in Alabama prisons, which are only geared to hold 12,000.
“The easiest thing that I’ve done as a judge is to put people behind bars,” she said. “I’ve put a lot of people in jail, and I’m not convinced that it has made us any more safe.”
As a public safety issue, Cobb said the state needs to change its philosophy of “trailing, nailing and jailing.” Cobb said the state spends millions on catching criminals, holding their trials and keeping them in prison, but she said that philosophy doesn’t work.
“Voters have encouraged politicians to make laws that lock up people and throw away the key,” she said. “That’s not working. We need more programs that provide transformation for people.”
Cobb used Walker County’s drug court program as an example.
“Judge (Doug) Farris does a tremendous job with this drug court,” she said. “This program is transforming people with a high rate of success and helping them to change their lives for the better. I’m proud to say that we have drug courts in every county but one. That is a miracle in my eyes.”
During her 2006 campaign for chief justice, Cobb said an encounter with a Walker County citizens made her realize what voters wanted.
“He didn’t ask me about my stances on issues,” she said. “All he wanted to know was did I really play the piano in my church like my ads said. He wanted to know the truth. That’s what voters want. They want the truth and they want people to stop lying to them.”
Cobb addressed her decision to step down as chief justice on Aug. 1, saying “I prayed myself into the job, and I prayed myself out of it.”
“I had many reasons to step down,” she said. “My mother is 87 and in a nursing home, and my daughter in 15. I want to be there for them. I also became convinced that I had gathered all the money I could for the court system, and it is not enough.”
Cobb said citizens must be more vocal when it comes to funding the state’s courts.
“The citizenry must tell legislators to fund the courts,” she said. “What sets us apart from Third World countries is our court system.”