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Truth in Sentencing: A simple idea faced with complex times

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

The Alabama Legislature in 2000 began to task the newly created Alabama Sentencing Commission with analyzing the existing sentencing model and to recommend changes that promote “certainty in sentencing.”

Based on the commission’s recommendations in 2003 the Alabama Legislature passed Alabama Sentencing Reform Act of 2003. This broad sweeping reform—according to the legislation—was to “manage [the] criminal justice system in the manner best able to protect public safety and make the most effective and efficient use of correctional resources.”

According to State Representative Paul DeMarco (R-Homewood), who is Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and sits on the Alabama Sentencing Commission, “Public Safety is always the first priority with any sentencing recommendations.”

The legislature mandated the commission to devise a plan for Truth in Sentencing in 2006, the time frame was extended in 2009 and was extended again until 2011.

The commission has worked diligently on the mission given them by lawmakers but Truth in Sentencing, or TIS as it is commonly referred to, is a complex issue with many parts that conflict with Alabama’s current system and with the state’s budgetary woes.

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TIS is really a very simple concept, it most basically means that when a convicted individual is given a sentence, that person will serve everyday of that sentence.

TIS is intended to tell the public that a sentence pronounced in court will actually be served—rather than the criminal serving only some small fraction of the sentence, due to the prisoner being released on parole, or the individual having the sentence commuted to probation and serving no time at all.

Under TIS statutes, offenders are required to spend substantial portions of their sentences in prison. The federally recommended portion is 85 percent of the sentence.

TIS is a simple idea with a numerous exceptions and complications.

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Many states have forms of TIS but they all vary to some degree and there is no proven model that works effectively across the broad scope of individual state laws.
  
As part of the legislative mandate the sentencing commission was to chart a set of judicial sentencing guidelines that would, “Abolish parole and goodtime credits, eradicate unwarranted sentencing disparity, make available alternate punishment options, address prison overcrowding, incapacitate dangerous and violent felons, and ensure truth in sentencing while maintaining judicial discretion.”

These are all guidelines that not only seem needed but fit nicely into a public safety priority as well as being a system that is more closely aligned with the traditional concept of crime and punishment.

However, there are grave contradictions within the mandate.

Truth in sentencing means that there will be more prisoners serving longer sentences, therefore, more people will be housed in penitentiaries. TIS is in direct opposition to reducing overcrowding and will greatly exacerbate the already critical mass of prisoners in Alabama correctional facilities.

According to logic it has been pointed out that there are only two ways to control prison population and subsequent overcrowding. One is how many people are being put in the system and the other is how many are being let out.

While TIS is a fair system and one greatly supported  by law-enforcement as well as victims, it is not as easy implemented when faced with constraining budget short falls.

In the past when a state instituted the policy of TIS it also committed large amounts of money to expand the prison infrastructure and  building new facilities.
 
The deadline for an implementation of TIS has Alabama lawmakers faced with a perplexing set of circumstances.

While some are looking at alternative sentencing for some non-violent offenders as a way to relax overcrowding, the legislative mandate for TIS is scheduled for this upcoming session.

Paul DeMarco is a man who knows the issues and has worked on bringing a solution to this complex problem.

DeMarco said, “There are some discussions of sentencing reform toward alternative sentences but there is a statute, a red flag, I think it was this past year the legislature said [to the Alabama Sentencing Commission], ‘You’ve got to come back with truth in sentencing.’ So, we have got to make sure all of this meshes.”

DeMarco is aware of the balancing act the government faces but is pushing for a fair outcome.

“It is very complex because you have a lot of stakeholders, you’ve got law enforcement, the prosecution, the court system with the judges, the prison system, the budgeting, the Legislature and the Governor,” said DeMarco,  “But the most important aspect that sometimes gets forgotten is the citizens who say, ‘What are the primary roles of government?’ It’s public safety. So, we have got to make sure that nothing gets lost in the mix and that is what I worry about it is not just about dollars and cents. You have got to remember the human phase in this whole picture.”

Some point to the fact that with the prison budget at around 25 percent of the state’s general fund that there is no way to mesh TIS with the need for a reduction in prison population.

“This is a case where the facts of the situation are being greatly ignored,” said an individual who spoke on terms of anonymity. “The government wants Truth in Sentencing, cops and prosecutors want it, the public at large wants it and most of all victims deserve it. But no one is willing to pay for it.” This individual further said, “Try it, go out tomorrow to the people of Alabama and say we want to keep criminals behind bars for their full sentence. Well, the people are going to say, ‘Yes.’ Then you say to them, alright, now, we will need to raise your taxes by five or ten percent. They will say, ‘Hell no.’”

This person with intimate knowledge of the prisons and the state budget says that there is dire need for a rational approach, where there is a mix of alternative measures as well as move toward TIS.

“The budget is going to get better, the economy is going to get better eventually and relieve some of the pressure. This is why we can’t look at this in a vacuum, you have got to look at it over the long term,” said DeMarco.

But our source says, “These are all very good men [DeMarco, Commissioners and Cam Ward] I wish them success in this challenging atmosphere, but, let’s be clear, math is a very stubborn thing, and we need to face the fact that even in good times we can’t have it all.”

Editor’s note, Judge Joseph A. Colquitt  has written a very informative work on Truth in Sentencing, entitled “CAN ALABAMA HANDLE THE TRUTH (IN SENTENCING)?”

Click here to read Judge Colquitt’s essay.
 

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

“We’re not going to get a do-over:” Alabama health officer on Thanksgiving and COVID-19

There were 1,427 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday, the most since Aug. 11.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris on Monday pleaded with the public to avoid gatherings over Thanksgiving as COVID-19 continues to surge in Alabama and hospitals statewide are filling with coronavirus patients. 

“We don’t want this to be the last ever Thanksgiving for someone in your family, like your parents or your grandparents,” Harris said during a press conference Monday. 

Harris said Alabama’s numbers aren’t headed in the right direction and more than 230,000 Alabamians — roughly 4 percent of the state’s population — have been infected by the coronavirus. 

“We are adding a couple of thousand new cases a day, at least, that we are aware,” Harris said. “This is a time for people to be vigilant. This is a time to be careful and to think about what you’re going to be doing.” 

Alabama added 1,574 new coronavirus cases on Monday, and the state’s 14-day average for new daily cases was at a record high 2,087. In the last two weeks, the state has added 29,223 cases, the most cases in any two week period since the pandemic arrived in Alabama in March.

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There were 1,427 hospitalized COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday. The last time so many were hospitalized in the state was on Aug. 11, during Alabama’s summer surge. 

Harris said that he and his wife will be staying home for Thanksgiving instead of having his family’s regular large, intergenerational gathering. What happens with Alabama’s COVID-19 numbers over Thanksgiving will impact what the state’s December holiday and Christmas season will look like, Harris said. 

“Are we gonna be here a month from now trying to have the same conversation? I really, really hope not,” Harris said. 

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Dr. Mary McIntyre, the Alabama Department of Public Health’s chief medical officer, said during the briefing that her home usually sees between 15 and 20 family members arriving for Thanksgiving. They’ve limited this year’s Thanksgiving to three additional people from out of their household, for a total of seven people, she said.

Everyone must wear masks and have temperatures checked at the door, she said. 

Everyone will be seated six feet from one another and a Zoom video conference will be set up for those family members who won’t be attending in person, McIntyre said. They’ll use disposable plates, cups and utensils and have the ability, weather permitting, to eat outdoors.

“If we want to live to see another Thanksgiving, and I do, that it may mean stepping back this Thanksgiving and really limiting the number of people, and some of the things that we do,” McIntyre said. “Now is not the time to get out to do Black Friday shopping.” 

Dr. Kierstin Kennedy, UAB’s chief of hospital medicine, in a separate press briefing Monday echoed concern over the possibility of spikes following Thanksgiving and Christmas if the public doesn’t do what’s needed to keep themselves and others safe.

“We are very much worried about the potential spike in numbers. We’ve also seen some of our own staff getting sick,” Kennedy said. “And unfortunately that’s not been at work. It’s been because we are just like you. We’re tired. We’re lonely. We want to try to socialize, and some of us have let our guards down and, as a result, have gotten sick.”

Kennedy said while there’s is concern over future spikes following the upcoming holidays “there is a way for all of us to help prevent that from happening.”

Kennedy said when Gov. Kay Ivey first issued her statewide mask order and social distancing requirements, the public masked up, businesses enforced the orders, and coronavirus numbers improved.

“It didn’t get nearly as bad as we thought, and we are really hopeful that the community is going to come together and do that again for us,” Kennedy said. “Because it’s more than just not having enough space for the COVID patients. It’s also those patients who do not have COVID that have other conditions. They rely on us for routine care, and we want to make sure that we’re available to provide that.”

Kenedy said UAB has an incredible group of staff members, who’ve proven themselves to be quite resilient, but that “the group is tired.”

“We’ve been doing this every single day since March, and so as you can imagine, people are very tired. It’s very emotional, especially as we see younger patients getting sick with this and getting sick in ways that we weren’t expecting,” she said.

Harris again urged the public to make smart decisions that will help slow the spread of coronavirus and save lives.

“Ladies and gentlemen, we’re not going to get a do-over on this,” Harris said. “This is a big national holiday, and we’re in the middle of a pandemic, and our numbers are worse than they have ever been during this entire response. Please be careful. Please be safe. And please try to take care of those people who are most vulnerable.”

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Health

Governor allocates $3.6 million in CARES Act funds to food banks

The money is to go to the nonprofit Alabama Food Bank Association, which will administer the funds.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced that $3.6 million in federal CARES Act money will be used to reimburse food banks for COVID-19-related expenses. 

“Alabama is a state where neighbors help neighbors, even in the most difficult times,” Ivey said in a statement. “The Coronavirus pandemic presented significant challenges around the world, as well as here at home in our own state. Food banks in communities across Alabama have been a lifeline for those in need, and I am proud to be able to put these funds toward the Alabama Feeding Initiative. I have told Alabamians that I remain committed to getting these CARES Act funds into the hands of those who need it.”

The funds are to go to the nonprofit Alabama Food Bank Association, according to the memorandum of understanding. The association will administer the funds to eight participating food banks across the state, which can be reimbursed for the following: 

  • The purchase of food, packaging and related supplies to meet increased demand.
  • operational expenses, including fuel and maintenance, incurred due to handling a higher amount for food, as well as open-air distribution events. 
  • Rental costs of storage space and vehicles to handle increased volumes of food. 
  • To purchase PPE, screening equipment and decontamination services to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Unless Congress extends the deadline, Alabama and other states have until Dec. 30 to spend CARES Act funds or the money reverts back to the federal government. Ivey has just under $1 billion left to spend before the deadline.

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Education

Alabama Education Association, Board of Medical Examiners meet over excuses to break COVID-19 quarantines

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Officials with the Alabama Education Association and the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners met on Thursday to discuss a concern the association has with doctors who write excuses to allow students to return to school before their mandated COVID-19 quarantine periods expire.

At the meeting between Theron Stokes, associate executive director of the Alabama Education Association, and William Perkins, executive director of the Alabama State Board of Medical Examiners, Stokes learned that the board wasn’t aware of the problem, the AEA said in a press release. 

“Both groups agreed to set up a meeting with educational and medical organizations on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic in Alabama,” the AEA said in the release. “A meeting should be held before the end of the year and will allow the AEA and the Board of Medical Examiners, as well as other educational and medical organizations, to review existing guidelines issued by the Alabama Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and ensure conformity in following those guidelines.” 

In a letter to Perkins on Thursday, Stokes wrote that it was AEA’s understanding that the board was aware of the problem, but he wrote that during their meeting he became aware that neither the board nor Perkins was aware of the problem. 

“It was not the intent of AEA to cause any unnecessary problems for you, the doctors you represent, or your organization regarding this matter,” Stokes wrote. 

Prior to the meeting, the AEA on Nov. 5 threatened legal action against the board over the matter. 

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“It is our firm belief that there exists no medical scenario under which these students could be written out of quarantine and that to do so is violative of ADPH and CDC quarantine recommendations,” Stokes wrote in the Nov. 5 letter. 

Stokes in his recent letter notes that both agreed in the meeting to bring together representatives of the other organizations to come up with a uniform procedure for following state and federal guidelines. 

“I agree with your plan to conduct this meeting and finalize our goals before the holidays,” Stokes wrote.

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Legislature

Caravan to honor the life of longtime State Rep. Alvin Holmes

The caravan is being organized by community activists Ja’Mel Brown and William Boyd.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

There is a car ride caravan honoring the life and service of Rep. Alvin Holmes in Montgomery at 2 p.m. Monday. The caravan is being organized by community activists Ja’Mel Brown and William Boyd.

On Saturday, Holmes passed away at age 81. He was born in 1939 into a very segregated Montgomery and spent his life battling in favor of civil rights causes. He was one of the first Black state representatives to serve in the Alabama Legislature after implementation of the Voting Rights Act.

There had been Black legislators during Reconstruction in the 1870s, but Jim Crow segregation during much of the 20th Century had effectively disenfranchised millions of Black Alabamians for generations.

Holmes served in the Alabama House of Representatives, representing House District 78 from 1974 to 2018. Holmes participated in the civil rights movement. He was a professor and a real estate broker.

The chairman of the Alabama Democratic Party, State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, released a statement mourning Holmes’s passing.

“Representative Alvin Holmes was a great Democrat and a fighter,” England said. “He stood on the frontlines of the fight for civil rights and was willing to sacrifice everything in his fight for justice for all. He not only had a long and distinguished career as a civil rights leader, but also as a member of the Legislature, serving his constituents faithfully and dutifully for 44 years. Alabama has lost a giant, whose wit, intelligence, fearlessness, selfless determination, and leadership will be sorely missed. My prayers are with his friends, family, and colleagues.”

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State Rep. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, fondly remembered Holmes, whom he defeated in the 2018 Democratic primary.

“Today we lost a dedicated warrior for social justice. Representative Alvin Holmes was a true public servant,” Hatcher said. “What an amazing legacy he has left us! He could always be seen waging the good fight for equality in all aspects of state government and beyond. His public service is legendary and without peer.”

“In recent years, I am profoundly grateful for the grace he showed me in his willingness to share with me his blueprint for effectively serving our people—and by extension the larger community,” Hatcher said. “Today, my fervent prayers are with his beloved daughter Veronica, her precious mom (and his best friend), as well as other cherished members of his family and friends as they mourn his passing. I humbly join the many voices who offer a sincere ‘Thank You’ to Mr. Alvin Holmes for his dedicated service to our Montgomery community and our state. ‘May angels sing thee to thy rest.’”

State Rep. Tashina Morris, D-Montgomery, also fondly remembered Holmes.

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“Sending Prayers to The Holmes family,” Morris said. “Alvin Holmes was the epitome of greatness working for his people!! May you Rest Well !!!”

Republican insider and former State Rep. Perry Hooper Jr. also served with Holmes in the Alabama House of Representatives and the Montgomery legislative delegation.

“I served with Alvin for 20 years in the Alabama Legislature,” Hooper said. “We often disagreed on the issues, but even after a heated floor debate, we could shake hands at the end of the day. I always considered him a friend. He loved Montgomery and he was a great representative of his district and its issues. He was always willing to go the extra mile for one of his constituents. When I served as Chairman of the Contract Review Committee, he was one of the committee’s most conscientious members. He was always questioning contracts so he could be assured that the contract represented a good use of taxpayer’s dollars which as Chairman I greatly appreciated. He was one of a kind pioneer in the Alabama Legislature and will be sorely missed.”

Alabama Secretary of State John Merrill served with Holmes in the Alabama House of Representatives prior to his election as secretary of state.

“I just learned that former State Rep. Alvin Holmes passed away today,” Merrill said on social media. “I enjoyed the privilege of serving with him from 2010-14. There was never a dull moment whenever he was in the Chamber. I appreciated him for his candor & for his desire to work on behalf of his constituents!”

Holmes was a member of the Hutchinson Missionary Baptist Church, Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Montgomery Improvement Association, Southern Christian Leadership Conference, Alabama Southern Christian Leadership Conference Board, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. He has one daughter, Veronica.

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