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Interview, Part 2: AG Strange on Immigration, Prisons and Tornados

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

APR: Everyday we hear how the budget is straining the state government is, how is that affecting the ability of the state to fight and prosecute crime and is there any solution to this?

STRANGE: So far, I think we are doing a good job, the DAs are doing a very good job. We are going to be fighting that budget fight early on but what concerns me is when you see the forensic labs cut. That is a good example of what really happens with law enforcement, when you can’t get your results back on a crime scene, particularly getting fingerprints back. Some of the satellite forensic labs have already been eliminated and they are being centralized at certain locations in Auburn and Montgomery, that’s a killer because the longer it takes the hazier memories get, witnesses wonder off, I am really concerned about that.

APR: The unfortunate thing is any time there are talks about having to cut programs, or even look to the Education Trust Fund, people get all up in arms. Then everything is reduced to sloganeering and people say stupid things like: “Well, we’re not going to let you cut such and such from the children’s to protect prisoners.” But they are not seeing the bigger picture. This is about law-enforcement trying to protect citizens by keeping people in jail or putting people in jail. It’s complex isn’t it?

luther_strangeSTRANGE: It is a very complex issue and the people in the Department of Corrections do a miraculous job in keeping that system together with the resources that they have. You have got to give them all of the credit in the world. It’s a delicate, tough situation.

I am going to continue to work with Cam [Ward] and the judges and DAs because this is the second largest piece of our General Fund Budget.

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APR: There are a lot of issues facing law-enforcement and the judiciary, two big ones are alternative sentencing and Truth in Sentencing. Recently, I was speaking with [District Attorney] Chris McCool about more judicial input in regards to sentencing and he was sharing with me that when citizens elect DAs and judges they are electing local folks. He was talking about how local judges and DAs have a better understanding of the people in that community and who needs to go to jail and never be let out and who could be put in an alternative situation without trying to jeopardize Truth in Sentencing.

STRANGE: I would say you could still have Truth in Sentencing in a scenario where you are allowing and encouraging local judges to do that.

It is important that once a judges says it is eight years that it is eight years, the victims want it to be eight years. They don’t want it to be, “Well, I’m giving him 15 years and he’ll be out in three.”

That’s what drives victims crazy, it drives the police crazy. Suddenly, a criminal is back in the community when they thought we had sent them away for 20 years. If the judge makes the determination on the front end that this guy should serve five years, one year or ten, then he actually gets that time. Then I think victims would be more understanding about it.

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APR: Why do we have this sort of craziness where someone gets 15 years and they are out in three? Can you give me a better understanding about this?

STRANGE: You know, I’m not sure, it has been built up, it is sort of a system that has been in place. I think it sounds good to give somebody 20 years, but over the years with a system that is drastically overcrowded they just starts adding on points for good behavior and other factors that just allow it to be whittled down, so they could get them out of crowded prisons.

APR: So a lot of this does, in fact, go back to the under-funding and overcrowding of our prisons. These people are let free, in part, due to a broken system.

STRANGE: Yeah, nobody is really all that happy with it. We have a pardons and parole board, as well, which not every state has. They are very good, they are a safeguard for keeping the worst from getting back on the streets any earlier than they have to be, and so they do a good job as well. There are problems with the system but they are being addressed.

APR: Changing the subject, (and this is kind of a softball question but always a fun one) what has surprised you the most about the job so far?

STRANGE: That’s a tough question, I thought you were going to ask me an easy one.

APR: You don’t have to answer that, I just thought it was a fun one.

STRANGE: No, no. Really, there have just been so many surprises that it is hard to say. It is such a wonderful job and I believe it’s even a better job than I could have imagined. I knew it was a great job but you get to be involved in so many things.

We have been given so many interesting issues to work on.

And critical things like the tornados. Early on we were pro-active. One of the ways was to reached out very early on going after people who might try to take advantage of the situation instead of waiting until after the fact on things, for example, like price gouging. This is always a problem after a hurricane or tornado or a disaster like that. Suddenly, there are a lot of allegations out there of merchants price gouging. We didn’t wait for it to happen.

Before the storms hit we reached out to the trade associations that represent all of the service stations and said, “Look. Here is what the rules are and if we get any reports of price gouging we are going to call you up and get you to call the station, and we will tell you where it is. If it is not fixed or if we don’t have a good answer for it in two hours we are sending a police car there.” And we had no problems. Every time we got a complaint we called the association and they would call the merchant and it would get fixed.

You know we have been trying to be pro-active on some things like that. During the tornadoes the police were just fabulous which it was great to see them work the way they did.

And then there is the immigration issue. I have really been surprised at just how controversial that has been but I guess that comes with it.

APR: Certain people and the media, most often, will paint many of us in Alabama as racist. My opinion is that this is not a racist bill it is a bill about the law and doing what the federal government basically has in their law but refuses to enforce.

STRANGE: I couldn’t agree more, this law is about addressing a problem that the federal government has not addressed. As a matter of fact, it was the Bush Administration for eight years that didn’t do anything about it. Now it is year three in the Obama Administration and they haven’t done anything about it. They just got more aggressive in determining that they were simply not going to enforce the law.

But, you are right about this perception about Alabama, and I think that maybe, in part, because we have actually had significant portions of our law upheld, unlike the other states. You know, there are a half a dozen other states that are doing the same thing Alabama is, I think that has made us a little bit of a target, I think that is part of it.

And I think it is easy for people to want to try and recreate the civil rights movement to use Alabama’s history.

I don’t know if you saw the editorial in the ‘New York Times’ basically comparing me to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door because I sent a letter to the Justice Department saying, “I would like to know what authority you have to collect a lot of information about our schools.” And they took that to be akin to George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse door.

This was just kind of a typical letter in the context of litigation. The Justice Department was suing us, and I thought it was a backdoor way to do discovery.

You don’t allow the police to nail a warrant to your door unless you look it and say, “What authority do you have?” I would never have imagined in my wildest dreams that they could come up with George Wallace comparison but then I started thinking about it and that is just a perception that they have.

Even though, like you, I have traveled all around the world and recruited people like Hyundai to come to Alabama, served on the board of Talladega College and done everything possible to move Alabama to the 21st Century.

And I think we have made great strides. I mean lightyears of strides since the 50s and 60s, but they still have that same perception. And I said to someone that the ‘Washington Post’ was trying to write a story about confrontation with the federal government and I said, “I have no confrontation with them. We want to work with them. We are both in the law-enforcement business.”

I am not going to allow anyone to be profiled, singled out, discriminated against or anything else in Alabama, but we need to work with the federal government. But I thought, Alabama has had some skeletons in the closet if you go back 50 or 60 or so years ago. And I guess this journalist decided to pull one out and beat me over the head with it. But that George Wallace thing was just a classic example of that.

APR: A comparison like that certainly stops dialog.

STRANGE: If you don’t like the tone of a letter simply asking for government’s authority then, who knows. That is a typical example of what we are up against.

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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Jones says Senate race a choice between “substance and leadership, and nothing”

“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Incumbent Sen. Doug Jones speaks at a rally in Anniston. (EDDIE BURKHALTER/APR)

Speaking outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters in Anniston on Friday, Sen. Doug Jones, D-Alabama, told a group of supporters that Alabamians haven’t gotten a look at what his Republican opponent might do if he wins the Nov. 3 election. 

“One of the great disappointments in this campaign is that Alabama is not really getting choices between substance and substance,” Jones said. “They’re getting a choice between substance and leadership, and nothing — nothing. We have not heard anything from Tommy Tuberville about what he really wants to do.” 

While Jones has held numerous interviews with the media, and regular web briefings over the summer and in recent weeks, Tuberville’s campaign seems to prefer the safety of keeping Tuberville from making possible gaffs or damaging statements in interviews. 

Tuberville hasn’t agreed to interviews with traditional media outlets, or to debate Jones, and instead has focused on conservative talk radio spots, speaking to smaller Republican groups and at private parties.

Tuberville’s campaign has ignored or denied our numerous attempts to interview Tuberville, including another request on Friday. He also declined to attend a student forum held at Auburn University on Wednesday, which Jones attended. The forum was sponsored by the Auburn College Republicans and College Democrats.

“If you ever hear something Tommy Tuberville says, it is just simply this: ‘Build a wall. No amnesty. Drain the swamp.’ That ain’t him. That’s Donald Trump,” Jones said. “He cannot think for himself. He doesn’t think for himself.” 

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Jones spoke of his record of working to help veterans through legislation. And he referred to Tuberville’s nonprofit for veterans and reporting that indicates, through tax records, that less than a third of the money raised for Tuberville’s charity went to help veterans. 

“I don’t just create charities and send only pennies on the dollar. I do things for the veterans of this state and this country,” Jones said. 

Jones also made a case for Alabamians to remember the contributions past Democrats made in the state. Jones said it was Democratic Sen. John Sparkman who helped build Alabama’s Redstone Arsenal. 

“It was a Democrat, Lester Hill, who built the rural hospitals around here that Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell and Tommy Tuberville are trying to destroy,” Jones said. “It was Howell Heflin who built up agriculture in this state. Those are the Democrats. It was Franklin Rosevelt that put electricity in this state. We’re going to do the same thing for broadband. People forget those things. They forget those things because we’ve let other people define us with lies.”

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Jones plans to visit Jefferson County on Saturday, then on to the Black Belt and Mobile on Sunday with another stop in Birmingham on Monday afternoon. 

“The goal is to get everybody out. That’s the thing if we want to continue to ensure Alabama moves forward — moves forward and not backwards, to continue to have somebody, if I do say so myself, somebody that’s just not going to damn embarrass us,” Jones said.

Supporters of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones rally in Anniston on Oct. 30, 2020. (EDDIE BURKHALTER/APR)

“We’ve had too much of that in Alabama,” Jones said, “and I bet you it won’t be a year that Tommy Tuberville would be an embarrassment to this state because he doesn’t know the issues. He doesn’t know what to do, and he’s dang sure not going to know what to do when Donald Trump is not president of the United States.” 

Jones encouraged supporters to be skeptical of recent polling. One such recent poll, by Auburn University at Montgomery, puts Tuberville ahead of Jones by 12 percentage points, 54 to 42.1. An internal poll by Tuberville’s campaign puts Tuberville ahead by 15 percentage points, while an internal poll from the Jones camp put Jones ahead by one percentage point. 

“Don’t listen to these polling folks that come in, and they don’t know Alabama, and they don’t know what they’re doing. We’re tracking this race, and I can tell you, everything has been moving in our direction the last two months,” Jones said. 

People standing along roadsides holding his signs and showing support, Jones said, is “the energy we’ve got out there. That’s what you can’t poll.”

Ellen Bass of Anniston, standing outside the Calhoun County Democratic Party headquarters just after Jones spoke, told APR that she has numerous Republican friends who are voting for Jones.

“My hat’s off to them because they’re coming out,” Bass said. “They recognize that he is a better candidate.”

Ciara Smith, 21, newly elected to the Anniston City Council, told APR outside the headquarters building that Jones is the better candidate.

“I think that he’s educated. I think that he speaks with passion and heart,” Smith said. “And he knows what he’s talking about, which is important, and which is more than we can say about the other candidate.”

Speaking to APR after his speech to supporters, Jones said that he feels very good about the state of his campaign.

“Everything we’re seeing is moving in our direction,” Jones said. “And the more he stays hidden, the better it is for us.”

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Crime

Inmate assault injures two St. Clair prison correctional officers

The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Two correctional officers at St. Clair Correctional Facility were injured in an inmate-on-officer assault on Monday, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR.

Among the two officers who sustained non-life-threatening injuries was a basic correctional officer (BCO), a position created in May 2019, who are not Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOST) certified and who have some limitations on working directly with inmates without correctional officers present.

The other officer injured was a full correctional officer, Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose told APR in a message Friday. The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries and subsequently released, according to Rose.

“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the actions taken by the inmate against ADOC staff are being thoroughly investigated,” Rose said. “As the investigation into this incident is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation.”

The ADOC created the new basic correctional officer position to bolster the state’s woefully understaffed prisons. The creation of the position was also at the suggestion of experts ordered by a federal court to study the department’s staffing problems, ADOC attorneys wrote to the court in a filing in 2019.

The ongoing lawsuit is over the state’s handling of mental health in prisons.

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The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs in June argued that ADOC was far behind on the court-ordered hiring new additional officers. It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.

U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a previous opinion wrote that prison understaffing “has been a persistent, systemic problem that leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control.”

“Taken together, ADOC’s low correctional-staffing level, in the context of its severely overcrowded prisons, creates a substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners, including continued pain and suffering, decompensation, self-injury, and suicide,” Thompson’s previous opinion continued.

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The SPLC in court filings late last year expressed concern over the use of basic correctional officers in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons. ADOC attorneys have argued to the court, however, that BCO’s are adequately trained to do their jobs and are needed for the department to hire the necessary number of officers per the court’s timeline.

In a court filing on Thursday, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the court not to again delay site visits to Alabama prisons by two experts who are tasked by the court to determine which positions should be filled by correctional officers and which by BCO’s and which by another new position, called cubical correctional officers, who are to have no direct interaction with inmates.

Those visits were to begin in May, but both parties in the suit agree to wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat it posed to the experts, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to “age and other factors,” according to court records.

Both parties again agreed to postpone those visits in June for those same reasons, those records show. ADOC seeks a third extension but attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the experts can visit the prisons while keeping themselves, prison staff and inmates safe from harm of COVID-19 and that thousands of employees and contractors enter Alabama prisons daily.

The plaintiff’s attorneys argue in the court filing that the expert guidance is needed because ADOC wishes to use BCO’s and cubical correctional officers to comply with the court-ordered hiring of additional staff by Feb. 20, 2022.

“Ensuring adequate staffing is of upmost importance to address the constitutional violations underlying mental health care within ADOC,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court Thursday.

ADOC in May was employing 494 BCO’s, a 57 percent increase in the number of BCO’s employed in Oct. 2019, according to ADOC’s staffing numbers. The number of correctional officers working in Alabama prisons fell by two percent during that time, dropping from 1,319 to 1,287.

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Elections

Slow absentee voting in Tuscaloosa sparks outrage, possible legal action

Among the issues were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Long lines and slow absentee ballot processing in Tuscaloosa County have left voters outraged and incumbent Sen. Doug Jones’s campaign threatening legal action. 

On Wednesday, Jones’s campaign attorney, Adam Plant, sent a letter to Tuscaloosa County Circuit Clerk Magaria Bobo, outlining a number of issues with ongoing absentee voting and promising to take legal action if Bobo doesn’t improve the process on the final day, Friday. Among the issues documented by Plant were incredibly long lines that left some voters waiting more than five hours and an inefficient process that managed to take in fewer than 100 absentee ballots in six hours. 

Additionally, Plant noted that Bobo has hired her family members to help process absentee ballots and at least one family member had made disparaging remarks on social media about voters. 

“You and those acting on your behalf are suppressing the vote of qualified Alabama voters,” Plant wrote in the letter. “If you are unable or unwilling to execute your duties competently, and allow Tuscaloosa voters to exercise their voting rights without undue burdens, we will take further action.”

In an interview with the Montgomery Advertiser on Wednesday, Bobo noted that her office had received more than 13,000 requests for absentee ballots — a remarkable uptick from the 3,000 or so her office usually receives — and there had been problems in managing that number of ballots while also adhering to social distancing guidelines within the office. 

However, as Plant’s letter notes, the massive increase in absentee ballots for this election shouldn’t have been a surprise. Also, Secretary of State John Merrill had made additional funds available to absentee managers to facilitate hiring extra staff, purchasing additional computers and staying open for longer hours to accommodate the anticipated increase. 

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In a press release on Wednesday, the Alabama Democratic Party criticized Bobo and her family members, and the release included screenshots of Facebook posts from Bobo’s daughter lashing out at voters who complained about the long wait times. 

“No voter should have to wait in line for hours to exercise their rights,” said ADP executive director Wade Perry. “We should leverage every tool we have to make voting easier, not harder. Also, it should go without saying that election workers should not insult the very people they are employed to serve. If Ms. Bobo is incapable of processing voters quickly, someone else needs to do the job.”

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Elections

Jones campaign calls Tuberville a “coward” after no-show at Auburn forum

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” Jones’s campaign said.

Brandon Moseley

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Sen. Doug Jones, left, and Senate candidate Tommy Tuberville, right.

There are only four days left before election day, and incumbent Democratic Sen. Doug Jones’s re-election campaign is slamming Republican challenger Tommy Tuberville, accusing him of “hiding” and calling him a “coward.”

On Wednesday, Jones addressed an Auburn University forum. Tuberville did not attend.

“Tonight, the College Democrats and College Republicans at Auburn University co-hosted a debate between Doug Jones and Tommy Tuberville, offering students a chance to ask the candidates about the issues that matter most to Alabama,” the Jones campaign said in an email to supporters. “But Tuberville never showed up – he’s too scared to face Doug… even on his own home turf. Tuberville has repeatedly refused to debate Doug Jones. He’s consistently refused to be interviewed by the press. He’s refused to tell Alabama the truth about who and what they’re voting for – and it’s clear why.”

“Tuberville is hiding because he knows that on every front — policy, experience, character, competence — he loses to Doug Jones. Hands down,” the campaign continued. “If he won’t tell the truth, we will. Tuberville expects to win this race off of his blind allegiance to the President and his party affiliation. But Alabamians know better.”

“People deserve to know who they’re really voting for if they vote for Tuberville: someone who … won’t protect our health care, doesn’t believe in science, has no idea what the Voting Rights Act is, and doesn’t care about the lives and livelihoods of Alabamians,” the Jones campaign concluded. “Alabama will never elect a coward. Pitch in now and help us spread the truth about the man hiding behind the ballot.”

“I am disappointed that Tommy Tuberville is not here,” Jones said. “I think it is important that people see two candidates side by side answering the same questions.”

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Tuberville meanwhile is canvassing the state, speaking to rallies and Republican groups to turn out the Republican vote for himself and President Donald Trump. Tuberville spoke at Freedom Fest in Madison County on Thursday and at the Trump Truck Parade rally in Phenix City.

“It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who represents our conservative beliefs and traditional values,” Tuberville said in Phenix City. “It’s time Alabama had a U.S. senator who supports the Second Amendment, the right to life, and putting God back in the classroom.”

Polling consistently shows Tuberville with a commanding lead over Jones. Real Clear Politics lists the race on their current board as a likely Republican win. FiveThirtyEight’s election model gives Tuberville a 79 percent chance of defeating Jones.

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