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Sentencing reform does not mean soft on crime, neither does alternative sentencing

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

Crime and punishment is a topic that raises complex issues, multiple passions and more than a little political rhetoric. A fixture of the liberal 1960s and 1970s was the idea that lawbreakers could be rehabilitated, that prisons were a barbaric intuition that should be brought into the modern era.

The scholarly new idea of that era was that rehabilitation was to be the function of criminal justice, that those who committed crimes could be changed into useful members of society through social engineering.

This liberal notion was thoroughly rejected in the 1980s and has continued in decline to this day.

Yet, with all of the good that has come from the more traditional model of crime and punishment there are still gaping holes when it comes to sentencing reform.

Sentencing reform is not synonymous with liberalizing punishment, no to the contrary, it has more to do with what Judge William Pryor said when he wrote that, “…criminal sentencing in Alabama could be made honest, fair, and rational.”

Judge William Pryor, who serves on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit, was the driving force to establish the Alabama Sentencing Commission. Pryor served as the Alabama attorney general from 1997 to 2004. During this time he and his office drafted and successfully lobbied for the legislation that created the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

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Pryor has written that his goal for the commission was to, “Dismantle a regime of explosive growth in the prison population, disparities and dishonesty produced by indeterminate sentencing, and a system of corrections that offered few alternatives to incarceration as a form of punishment.”

He also has written that he hoped to, “Create over time a system of voluntary sentencing guidelines to the end that criminal sentencing in Alabama could be made honest, fair, and rational.”

According to Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who is the Co-Chairperson of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chairman Joint Oversight for Prison and on the Sentencing Commission, says that the Sentencing Commission of Alabama has accomplished some very important tools toward better sentencing within the juridical system. A report released this summer lists a comprehensive look at what the commission has accomplish and is working on for the future.

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Over the years actions by the U.S. Supreme Court and the U.S. Congress have had the effect of federalizing crime and punishment and has severely compromised the sovereignty of state governments and courts.

Judge Pryor, in his writings on “Federalism and Sentencing Reform in the Post-Blakely/Booker Era,” sights two U.S. Supreme Court cases that produced a sea change in sentencing reform. First ‘Blakely v. Washington’ was decided in 2004 and then ‘United States v. Booker’ in 2005.

These two cases placed exhaustive roadblocks for sentencing reform in our nation’s states.

In her dissenting opinion in Blakely, Justice Sandra Day O‘Connor wrote, “What I have feared most has now come to pass: Over [twenty] years of sentencing reform are all but lost.”

O’Connor went on to accurately predict that many jurisdictions would abandon  sentencing reform all together.

The abandonment of sentencing reform had been one of the painful legacies of ‘Blakely.’

The Alabama Sentencing Commission is one of the few commissions that is still actively working to reform state sentencing policies.

In its mission statement the commission says, “The Alabama Sentencing Commission shall work to establish and maintain an effective, fair, and efficient sentencing system for Alabama that enhances public safety, provides truth-in-sentencing, avoids unwarranted disparity, retains meaningful judicial discretion, recognizes the most efficient and effective use of correctional resources, and provides a meaningful array of sentencing options.”

However, states have been wary of straying too far from the federal model which has resulted in limiting the role of judges and legislators.

“What has happened over the years is that states tie all of their sentencing guidelines to the federal guidelines. And what has happened over time is the federal justice and prison system has grown enormously,” said Ward.

Ward points out that when the federal system runs out of money because its prisons and courts have grown too large they simply print more money.

“The federal government can run up massive debt and then they just print more money but states like ours have to balance our budgets,” said Ward.

Ward says that many states have nearly bankrupted trying to keep on par with the federal system.

“So, over the years, mistakes have been made tying everything that we do to the federal government,” said Ward. “Some things we do should be tied to federal guidelines, but not everything,” said Ward.

The commission has made progress in its mandate to ensure that sentencing practices promote public safety and recognize the impact of crime on victims by concentrating on the incarceration of violent, sex, and repeat offenders. There is still work to be done to “maintain meaningful judicial discretion allowing judges the flexibility to individualize sentences based on the unique circumstances of each case,” states the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

This again is slowed because of ‘Blakely’ and the federalization of the sentencing with mandatory minimums.

Today, prisons and state resources are stretched to the breaking point, the judicial system has ridden the pendulum, from the lenient 60s and 70s through the “Tough on Crimes,” of the last three decades into a new awareness that there must be a middle way. Where tough on crime also means alternative sentencing but not liberal punishment.

Ward said, “There are a lot of other individual crimes, particularly certain types of drug crimes, acts where you get caught for possession, but you are not trafficking, crimes like that aren’t necessarily tied to any kind of mandatory minimum.”

Ward says that using certain alternative sentencing options, is how to begin to address prison overcrowding.

“You look at conservative states like Texas, Kentucky, South Carolina, these are states that are very conservative and they have already tackled this issue,” said Ward.

But, Ward and others point out that this is not about being soft on crime but being sensible in finding ways to keep the worst criminals behind bars.

However, only recently have many Republicans began to see the need for alternitive sentencing, the impetus coming not from legal reasoning but from budgetary restraints.

“There has been a dramatic shift in the political landscape on this issue in the last few years,” said Adam Gelb, director of the Public Safety Performance Project of the Pew Center on the States. “Conservatives have led the charge for more prisons and tougher sentencing, but now they realize they need to be just as tough on criminal justice spending.”

Ward says that many conservative states because of budgetary constraints have looked at how to  keep their pledge of public safety, punishment for crime and judicial integrity while making tough choices.

When asked which state offers the best example of a conservative re-evaluation of alternative sentencing, Ward said, “Texas, hands down. Because the Republican legislature, they are the government of Rick Perry, they have signed into law alternative sentencing guidelines for these first-time, non-violent offenders and have remained tough on crime.”

Alabamians expect that the legislature will keep in mind Justice Pryor’s goal to, “Create over time a system of voluntary sentencing guidelines to the end that criminal sentencing in Alabama could be made honest, fair, and rational.”

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Health

COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alabama continue surge

On Monday, 1,335 patients with COVID-19 were being cared for in hospitals statewide, the most to date.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Data from the Alabama Department of Public Health shows hospitalizations have increased since July 1. (APR GRAPHIC)

Alabama on Monday saw the highest number yet of COVID-19 patients in hospitals since the start of the pandemic, and the second-highest single-day increase in coronavirus cases on record. 

On Monday, 1,335 patients with COVID-19 were being cared for in hospitals statewide. That was 172 more COVID-19 patients than were hospitalized the previous day — and the largest single-day increase in hospitalization numbers reported by the Alabama Department of Public Health.

The last record number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama was on Friday, when 1,201 people were being treated statewide. The increase Monday is also 134 more patients than were being care for on Friday.

Friday was the sixth straight day of record-breaking COVID-19 hospitalizations in Alabama. Friday also saw the second-highest number of deaths in a single day in the state, when ADPH confirmed 35 new deaths as a result of COVID-19, nearly breaking the previous record of 37 set on May 12.

On Monday, the state also added 1,860 to Alabama’s total case count, bringing the cumulative total now to 54,768 confirmed cases. That’s the second-highest single-day increase in cases since the start of the pandemic. With 25,783 people presumed to have recovered from the virus, and at least 1,096 dead, more than half of the state’s cases, or 27,889, are presumed to be active.

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Testing has ticked up slightly in the last few weeks — Alabama’s seven-day average of tests conducted was 9,176 on Monday, 93 more than the previous high set on July 5 — but the percentage of tests that are positive continues to increase as well, a sign that new cases aren’t just due to more testing. 

The seven-day average positivity rate Monday was 16.18 percent, which was almost 30 percent higher than it was a week ago. Taking into account the Alabama Department of Public Health’s incomplete testing data on July 9 and in early April, which threw off the positivity rate, Monday’s seven-day average was the highest on record for Alabama. 

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Public health officials say that the percent of tests that are positive should be at or below 5 percent or there’s not enough testing being done and cases are going undetected. 

Madison County continues to see a surge in new cases. The county added 267 new coronavirus cases on Monday, and over the last week added 1,044 new cases, which was 70 percent more than were added the week before. Madison County’s positivity rate this week has been roughly 16 percent. 

Jefferson County followed closely behind Madison County, adding 266 new cases Monday and 1,602 cases within the last week, which was a 30 percent increase from the week before. 

In Mobile County, there were 157 new cases Monday.

Mobile County’s weekly total of new cases for the last week was 23 percent higher than the previous week. 

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Economy

Extra $600 in COVID-19 unemployment benefits ends July 26

The extra weekly unemployment payment of $600 ends later this month. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Despite surging COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations across Alabama and in many other states, an extra $600-per-week in unemployment compensation through the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program is expected to expire July 26. 

That extra money, meant to help those whose jobs were displaced by coronavirus and through no fault of their own, was made possible through the CARES Act, the federal aid program that is to continue through Dec. 31, 2020, but the extra weekly payment of $600 ends later this month. 

“At this time, the federal government has not changed or extended the FPUC program. States do not have the ability to extend FPUC,” the Alabama Department of Labor said in a press release on Monday. 

The end of the extra assistance will impact more than 25 million Americans, during a time when COVID-19 continues to spread actively through communities. 

More than $1 billion has been pumped into Alabama’s economy through the extra $600-a-week payments to Alabamians, according to the New York City-based think tank The Century Foundation.

The Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments make up 60 percent of total unemployment benefits paid during the pandemic. 

In Alabama, 35,760 people are receiving the extra $600 a week, which totals approximately $91.7 million weekly into the state, according to The Century Foundation, which estimates that benefits to Alabamians receiving unemployment assistance will decrease by 70 percent once the extra $600 a week dries up. 

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The average current combined unemployment benefits in Alabama is $854.95 and after the end of the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation payments, the remaining unemployment benefit will be roughly $254.95.

There are also racial justice implications in the end to the extra $600 a week in aid, according to the think tank.

“Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Mississippi, and South Carolina all have average unemployment benefits below $300 per week, as a result of both low wages and unemployment insurance rules that simply offered less protection to predominantly black workforces,” The Century Foundation’s report notes.

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In Alabama, 57 percent of those receiving unemployment benefits during the COVID-19 pandemic from March to April were women and 50 percent were white, while 43 percent were Black, while Black people make up only 27 percent of the state’s population.

The report states that the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation benefit was intended to be a public health measure, helping workers while they stay home until it is safe to go back to work.

“Just as rushed reopenings put families at risk, eliminating FPUC now will force people to rush back to work before it is safe,” the report reads.

Job seekers can visit their local Career Center or search jobs online without cost at alabamaworks.alabama.gov

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Elections

Barry Moore receives two key endorsements

Staff

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Barry Moore, Republican candidate for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. (VIA BARRY MOORE CAMPAIGN)

Barry Moore, candidate for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District, received two key endorsements from the Alabama First Responders Association and the Veterans Leadership Fund. Both groups made the decision to endorse Moore because of his pro Veteran, pro Law Enforcement, and Pro First Responders stance. 

“We at the Veterans Leadership Fund, an initiative at GatorPAC, are proud to endorse Veteran, Barry Moore for Alabama’s 2nd Congressional District. At VFL, we have a rich history of supporting candidates who best represent true conservative values and have served our great country. As a self term-limiting representative, a devout conservative, and a true man of the people, Barry Moore is the ideal representative for veterans and conservatives alike,” said Rob Maness, founder of GatorPAC and the Veterans Leadership Fund. 

“The Alabama First Responders are proud to endorse Barry Moore for Alabama’s second Congressional district. Alabama’s heroes put their lives on the line every day. We must protect their jobs, and make sure that their families will be covered if something tragic happens in the line of duty. Barry always voted in support of first responder legislation while he served in the Alabama Legislature. We are confident that Barry Moore will continue his support while serving in Congress,” said interim Director Brett Trimble. 

Moore responded with the following statement:

“I am very honored to receive both of these endorsements. I am a Veteran and having the support of the Veterans Leadership fund is quite an honor. I have always worked to support and defend our Veterans. When I served as the Chairman of Military and Veterans Affairs in the Legislature, I always made sure our servicemen and women were a top priority.

“First Responders are the backbone of our communities. They serve the citizens and put their lives on the line each day. When a disaster happens we can always count on these brave men and women to respond with courage and empathy. President Trump has shown great care in protecting and defending our law enforcement officers. We can’t let the Democrats attempt to defund the Police. When I’m serving in Congress, I will stand strong with the President and DEFEND our Police and first responders.”

Moore is a small businessman, Veteran, former member of the Alabama Legislature, husband, and father of four from Enterprise.

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Elections

Sessions says Alabama doesn’t take orders from Washington after Trump inserts himself in race again

Brandon Moseley

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GOP Senate candidate and former Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Alabama, released a statement pushing back against President Donald Trump’s endorsement of his opponent, former Auburn coach Tommy Tuberville, in which he said “Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

The blunt comments were in response to a Twitter post from Trump once again inserting himself in the Alabama Senate race.

“I’ve taken the road less travelled,” Sessions said. “Not sought fame or fortune. My honor and integrity are far more important than these juvenile insults. Your scandal ridden candidate is too cowardly to debate. As you know, Alabama does not take orders from Washington.”

This was after Trump tweeted, “Big Senate Race in Alabama on Tuesday. Vote for @TTuberville, he is a winner who will never let you down. Jeff Sessions is a disaster who has let us all down. We don’t want him back in Washington!”

Trump has called his decision to appoint Sessions as U.S. attorney general his “biggest mistake” as president.

The rift between the two former friends began in 2017 when Sessions, newly appointed as attorney general, recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation. Sessions has steadfastly defended the decision and continues to maintain that he was forbidden by U.S. Department of Justice policy forbidding anyone who was part of a campaign from investigating that campaign.

Sessions was the first U.S. senator to endorse Trump in the 2016 presidential election and worked tirelessly throughout 2016 as a surrogate for the Trump campaign.

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Sessions maintains that had he not recused himself from the Russian collusion investigation things would have gone worse for Trump. As it was, his duties in the matter fell on fellow Trump appointee Rod Rosenstein, who appointed former FBI director Robert Mueller as special counsel.

The special counsel investigation successfully prosecuted a number of close Trump associates for various failings in their personal and professional lives, but ultimately never was able to indict the president or a member of the Trump family, and it never was able to produce tangible evidence that the 2016 Trump campaign was involved in collusion with Russian intelligence agencies to defeat former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Sessions is running for the Senate seat he gave up to be attorney general.

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Tuberville has been avoiding the media since a New York Times report detailed how Tuberville’s business partner David Stroud cheated investors out of their savings and was sentenced to ten years in prison. The two had formed a hedge fund, managed by Stroud, a former Lehman Brothers broker. Tuberville maintains that he was Stroud’s biggest victim, but the investors sued Tuberville, who settled out of court.

Sessions’ campaign maintains that incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’ campaign will capitalize on the scandal during the general election similarly to how they capitalized on allegations against former Chief Justice Roy Moore to win the 2017 special election to win the Senate seat vacated by Sessions to be attorney general.

Sessions was a late entrant into the Senate campaign. Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Alabama, has endorsed Sessions.

“Jeff Sessions is a good friend and a respected former colleague,” Shelby wrote. “I believe he is well-suited to return to his role as United States Senator for the state of Alabama, where I served with him for more than 20 years. He has my full support and endorsement.”

Sessions was Senator from 1997 to 2017. He was U.S. Attorney General from 2017 to Nov. 2018. Prior to his Senate service, he served the state as Alabama Attorney General, Republican Party Chairman, and U.S. Attorney under Presidents Ronald W. Reagan (R) and George H. Bush (R). Sessions was also a former assistant U.S. Attorney and a U.S. Army reserve officer. He is a native of Alabama who grew up outside of Camden in rural Wilcox County.

The Republican primary runoff is on Tuesday. In order to vote in any Alabama election you must: be registered to vote, vote at your assigned polling place, and have a valid photo ID. It is too late to register to vote in this election or obtain an absentee ballot; but if you have an absentee ballot today is the last day to return it either through mail or by hand delivering it to your courthouse absentee ballot manager’s office.

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