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Bill Britt

Tutwiler Needs More Than A Bulldozer

Bill Britt

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By Bill Britt
Alabama Political Reporter

One case of prisoner abuse is one more than should be tolerated within the walls of our State’s penitentiaries.

One act of sexual violence against a woman or a man under custodial care of the Alabama Department of Correction in unacceptable.

These same sentiments have been expressed by ALDOC Commissioner Kim Thomas and Governor Robert Bentley.

The rush to sensationalize the U.S. Department of Justice report on Tutwiler Prison has betrayed the fact that the findings are old, and that much of the work to correct the problems cited has already begun.

The DOJ findings mirror many of those by the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) report requested by Thomas over a year ago. While both reports are extremely disturbing the failure of the media to give equal time to the sweeping changes, Thomas and his staff have established at the aging institution is also concerning.

But as any good editor knows anytime you can marry sex, women and prison in a headline, you are sure to attract an audience. None of this is meant to minimize the seriousness of the problems at Tutwiler, but to emphasizes that in this instance, the ALDOC leadership is in front of the problem, not behind.

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Someone recently suggested that Tutwiler be bulldozed, as if that would solve the problem.

The problem is as old as human nature and how to deal with those individuals in society that choose to break the law.

Prisons are a tool of the State used to punish those who commit crimes. They are also the way that the government keeps criminals separate from the law-abiding public, ensuring some modicum of public safety. Lastly, they are institution that provided rehabilitative education for those who are willing to improve their lives. But let’s be clear, their primary purpose in to punish.

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Our State’s prisons are woefully ill equipped to do little more than warehouse inmates, but Commissioner Thomas is trying to do more.

Alabama spends on average $42.00 a day per inmate. That is the lowest cost of any state prison system in the country. There is little appetite among our lawmakers or citizens to raise taxes to fund more or better prisons.

As for bulldozing Tutwiler, it might be a good idea but where is the money to be found to replace it; where is the willingness among the people of Alabama to accept a tax increase to fund such an building project? Few politician are willing to risk the next campaign by announcing a tax-increase to fund better living conditions for prisoners.

So, our prisons stay over crowded, operating at almost 200 percent of capacity.

There are only two ways to reduce prison population:

One is to limit the number of individuals who enter the system.

The other, is to increase the number of prisoners released.

Again, neither of these ideas are popular campaign platforms.

Alabamians are law and order constituents; therefore, so are their elected representatives. We know how to be tough on crime, but we need to learn how to be smart on crime. This is not only risky for a politician, it also requires an informed electorate.

The media has a responsibility to educate the public as to the problems within the system, but it should also support the lawmakers and officials who are trying to improve this difficult situation.

Politicians like State Senator Cam Ward, Republican from Alabaster, has  come forward to champion many reforms to our judiciary system that would lead to alternative sentencing. Testing on offenders before they enter the prison system is also a way to evaluate what type of punishment and what resources should be allocated to an inmate.

What may be surprising to die-hards on the right is that individuals like Susan Watson, the new Executive Director of the Alabama ACLU, are offering a helping hand to find good solutions to this most challenging of problems. In a written statement to the Alabama Political Reporter Watson said, “We really look forward to sitting down and working together with legislators and prison officials to find realistic and tangible solutions to the problems at hand.”

Tutwiler is just a symptom of a much larger problem. ”

This is a case were the left and the right need to sit together to establish a plan to do with is best for all.

As for finding realistic and tangible solutions, the state could not find a better man to lead the way than Commissioner Kim Thomas.

Thomas, is a man of advanced degrees, who has given his working life to the correctional institution. Working his way up from a rank-in-file correctional officer to commissioner over the entire system, Thomas has spend 30 years on the frontline of corrections. An individual of Thomas’ intelligence, character and drive would have been a success in any field but he unselfishly choose to serve in the most dangerous, thankless job one can find in state government. Those who call for Thomas’ head over the Tutwiler situation are as ill informed as they are wrong. The State would be hard pressed to find any individual more suited or more committed to those in the prison system be they inmate or staff, than Thomas. There are a great many things wrong with our state’s overcrowd prisons however, Thomas is not one of them.

Tutwiler is a real and pressing dilemma for our State.

We need more dialogue and less demagoguery.

This is a situation that calls for alacrity of mind, prudent judgement and a brave heart…

not a bulldozer.

 

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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Bill Britt

Opinion | Gov. Kay Ivey didn’t cave

Ivey stood her ground on Wednesday, refusing to cave to those who want to end the mask order.

Bill Britt

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Gov. Kay Ivey held a Coronavirus update Press Conference Wednesday September 30, 2020 in Montgomery, Ala. (Governor's Office/Hal Yeager)

Gov. Kay Ivey extended the statewide mandatory mask ordinance on Wednesday despite pressure from her party’s right-wing. Nationally and here in Alabama, many Republicans have complained that any restrictions on their behavior during the COVID-19 outbreak is a violation of their individual liberty.

Ivey stood her ground on Wednesday, refusing to cave to those who want to end the mask order. For most of the COVID-19 pandemic here in the state, Ivey has followed health experts’ advice rather than politicos. Standing up to the Republican Party’s right-wing is not an easy task even in the best of times, but these days, with the party more radicalized than ever, Ivey is taking a huge political risk.

But like Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, she hasn’t bowed, she hasn’t bent, and she hasn’t burned.

These are divisive times when even the best of people seem to be at war over the nation’s direction.

“Give me liberty or give me death” may have been a great rallying cry in 1776; it’s less persuasive as a public health policy.

Lately, some Alabama conservatives sound more like the John Birch Society members than the Republican Party of just a few years ago.

“In the name of fighting the coronavirus, more and more state governors are ruling by decree, curtailing freedoms and ordering residents to stay at home,” says the Birch website.

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The Republican Party in the 1960s deemed Birchers dangerous and severed ties with the group. But like 60s racism, Red-baiting and a fear that socialist are lurking behind every corner, all that’s old is new again.

Not surprisingly, former Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore is one of the leading voices in the fight to discredit the Ivey administration’s COVID orders.

Senate President Pro Tem Republican Del Marsh is part of the anti-masker movement and has suggested he’d like to see more people become infected to build the state’s overall immunity to the virus.

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Marsh is certainly not alone; there is a motivated mop of miscreants who sees any restriction as an affront to them doing anything they please. Perhaps they can refuse to wear a seatbelt or maybe light up a cigar the next time they are dinning at the county club and show some real radical resistance.

The truth is many of those who condemn masks as an intrusion on personal freedom would happily compel their fellow citizens to pray at school and stand for the national anthem. They are more than willing to regulate liberties when it contradicts their opinion of what is good and wholesome. But heaven forbid they wear a mask to protect others—that is one regulation too far.

Like a pubescent boy, they live in a fantasy world; without consequences.

Anti-maskers are given to a form of herd mentality, which is part of a broader movement to discredit science for political purposes.

Perhaps the most critical job of a governor or lawmaker is the heath and safety of the public.

Masks protect others more than the wearer, and where the “Golden rule” should apply, it is trampled on just like Jesus’ admonition to love our neighbors as ourselves.

But I suspect that many of those who continuously espouse conspiracies, apocalyptic nightmares, and end time prophecies actually don’t like themselves very much and therefore don’t really care about the shared responsibilities we have toward others.

Writing for Business Insider, George Pearkes explains the four different types of liberty, according to David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed to explain mandatory mask orders.

“Efforts to require masks are a straightforward expression of ordered liberty,” writes Pearkes. “The concept of ordered liberty argues that without structure and a set of rules which are enforced for the common good, society would devolve into chaos.” He further concludes that “Mask orders are quite literally saving society from itself, so that we can be more free than we would if COVID spread even further and faster.”

Ordered liberty can be seen at the heart of Ivey’s policies during the coronavirus plague.

But for anti-maskers, “Live Free or Die” means they are free to do what they want, even if it kills you.

Ivey is putting people ahead of politics. We should wish more would follow her example.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | In Alabama, the past is prologue

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Bill Britt

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Like people, governments have pasts, and today’s fortunes are either furthered or frustrated by the things that came before. It might be said that even history leaves DNA.

Understanding Alabama’s past is essential to navigating its future because its government’s origins determine that the past is prologue.

Even after 200 years, Alabama’s political approach hasn’t changed much; the fundamentals established by its founders are still evident in everyday politics.

Those who observe Alabama’s governing process closely see the same structural problems impede progress year after year. Resistance to home rule and a regressive tax system are just two of the many roadblocks to a more prosperous state.

Some unresolved issues are due to a lack of leadership, but others are inherent within the state’s original governing procedures. Even the state’s architects’ elitist attitude is still prevalent with near total power given to a Legislature dominated by one-party rule. The earlier settlers’ prejudices are enshrined in every process of governing.

Failure to understand, acknowledge, and change the state’s historical patterns hinders advancement, leaving the state nearly dead last in every metric of success. It doesn’t have to be this way, but the cure is always met with fierce rejection because beyond admitting ingrained inequities, any change would upend 200 years of consolidated power.

When Republicans promised a new day in Alabama politics in 2010, some sincerely believed that change was possible. Still, after nearly a decade of Republican one-party rule, there isn’t a substantial difference in governing practice.

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It’s not because good people haven’t tried to make a difference; it’s that there are systematic flaws that thwart reformers while rewarding the status quo.

A region’s founders and its dominant settlers are the creators of what can be called a state’s DNA. Alabama’s government still reflects the make-up of its original colonizers.

Much of the Deep South was established by slave owners who intended to recreate a society based on the Caribbean colonies of Great Britain.

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In his 2011 non-fiction work American Nations: A history of the eleven rival regional cultures of North America, Colin Woodard shows how Deep South states were “Marked by single-party rule, the domination of a single religious denomination, and the enshrinement of a racial caste system for most of its history.” He also writes that these cultures supported regulation on personal behavior while opposing economic restraint.

Today, Alabama’s governance framework and, to a lesser degree, its society is much like the Deep South characteristics Woodard describes.

One Party rule.

A dominant religion.

A racial caste system.

And a willingness to impose regulations on personal behavior while opposing almost every economic restrictions.

Woodward’s findings mirror Alabama’s state government.

Alabama’s central governing power is based on a top-down fraternity where a privileged few hold the reins of authority with a whip hand ready to strike.

Even before statehood, Alabama was regulated by an upper class who built the territory’s economy slave labor. The same class gained even more control after statehood.

“By the antebellum period, Alabama had evolved into a slave society, which…shaped much of the state’s economy, politics, and culture,” according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Slaves accounted for more than 30 percent of Alabama’s approximately 128,000 population when it was granted statehood in 1819. “When Alabama seceded from the Union in 1861, the state’s 435,080 slaves made up 45 percent of the total population,” writes Keith S. Hebert.

The state is currently home to approximately 4.9 million individuals. If 45 percent were slaves today, that would account for around 2.2 million people in bondage.

After the South lost the Civil War, Reconstruction ushered in an era where “a larger number of freed blacks entered the state’s electorate and began voting for the antislavery Republican Party,” according to Patrick R. Cotter, writing for the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

But the old establishment fought back and instituted the 1901 Constitution, which permanently ended any challenge to one-party rule and restored white supremacy in government.

A major feature of the new constitution was a poll tax and literacy tests and other measures to disenfranchise Black people and poor whites.

As Republicans reminded voters in the 2010 campaign cycle, Democrats controlled Alabama politics for 136 years. But these were not liberals; far from it. Alabama’s old Democratic Party for generations was home to racists, not radicals.

It was only over time that the Democratic Party became the diverse collation it is today.

With Republicans holding every state constitutional office and the Legislature, the one-party rule continues as it has throughout the state’s history; only the name has changed.

Looking back over the founding years of Alabama’s history, barbarity is searing, and the atrocities unimaginable. Yet, the fact remains that these early framers thought nothing of enslaving Blacks or treating poor whites as little more than chattel. It shocks our modern sensibilities as it should. Still today, the state continues in a system of government steeped in framers’ institutionalized prejudices.

Famously 19th-century British politician Lord Acton said, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”

Alabama’s fathers wanted a government that gave absolute power to the few at the expense of the many; that is as true now as it was then.

There is a path to a better government, but as Lord Acton also said, “Great men are almost always bad men.”

History may not repeat itself, but politics does, and that is why Alabama’s history is prologue for today.

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Bill Britt

Opinion | Hubbard did the crime; he should do the time

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Bill Britt

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Mike Hubbard looks toward his family after receiving sentencing on Friday, July 8, 2016, in Opelika, Ala. (Todd Van Emst/Opelika-Auburn News/Pool)

Attorneys for convicted felon, former Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, believe he has suffered enough, and his sentence should be reduced because six of the charges against him were overturned on appeal.

The remaining six counts against Hubbard call for a prison term of four years, 16 years probation, and substantial fines independent of the charges the upper courts set aside. Therefore, there exist no reasonable grounds under which trial Judge Jacob Walker III should lessen Hubbard’s sentence.

This action on Hubbard’s behalf is simply another attempt to subvert justice.

A Lee County jury found Hubbard guilty of twelve counts of public corruption, most notably using his office for personal gain and using state resources and personnel to enrich himself—and those counts still stand.

The Court of Criminal Appeals rejected Count 5, and the Alabama Supreme Court struck down another five, which primarily dealt with the charges surrounding “principals.”

The upper-court’s finding appears more political than judicial, but most people in the state are used to jurists who bend the law for the rich and politically connected.

Of the remaining charges against Hubbard, five carry a ten-year spit sentence of two years in prison and eight years probation, and one count has a six-year split sentence with 18 months in jail with the remainder served on probation.

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Why would Judge Walker reverse his judgment since the appeals process left in place the charges that carry the very sentence he imposed?

Does Judge Walker think he erred in his sentencing? Does he now, in retrospect, believe he was unfair as Hubbard’s lawyers contend?

Hubbard’s appeal is merely more subterfuge and trickery disguised as a legal argument.

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Astonishingly, in their latest filing, lawyers, David McKnight and Joel Dillard, assert that Hubbard is not “a danger to society, nor a threat to the public” as a reason to let him out of prison.

Hubbard may not be a violent offender but his actions are a danger to society and a threat to the public.

Prison is not only for brutal inmates it is also for those who break a certain class of laws. Because a felon wears a thousand dollar suit doesn’t mean they deserve less jail time.

Hubbard’s crimes are some of the most heinous perpetrated against civil society.

Public corruption undermines the rule of law and the principles of good government and is an offense more potent than property theft, drug use, or other nonviolent crimes because it rips apart the very fabric of society and its trust in the foundations of the republic.

A corrupt politician’s actions subvert the very meaning of representative government.

Hubbard is not now a danger to society, or a threat to the public because he is behind bars. But make no mistake he is a menace to public good. Even before his indictment, Hubbard used every scheme at his disposal to thwart justice, entice lying and manipulate public trust. And now he wants one more shot at corrupting the system.

There are only two occasions when every individual should expect equal treatment: when they stand before a court of law and when they stand before their maker. Yes, a wealthy defendant like Hubbard can afford better legal representation, but it doesn’t mean he can purchase special justice.

Hubbard has been given preferential treatment by lawmakers, the media, and even some on the courts. All along the way, Hubbard was handled with kid gloves and given unwarranted privilege.

McKnight and Dillard argue with a straight face that letting Hubbard out of prison early will, “Preserve scarce prison bed-space for habitual offenders and others from whom society needs protection… [and] more likely result in the defendant’s rehabilitation than incarceration.”

The word rehabilitation is used several times in Hubbard’s most recent court filings as if somehow allowing him to avoid prison time will serve to rehabilitate him. To this day, Hubbard doesn’t believe he’s committed a crime, so how is rehabilitation possible?

His attorneys lastly make the most laughable argument possible by indicating Hubbard has suffered enough.

“[The] Court should consider the punishment that Hubbard has already suffered. The convictions in this case alone have resulted in a wide range of punishments which include his removal from office, the loss of his right to vote, the divestment of his business interests, and his current incarceration.”

Suffered enough?

When lawmakers break ethics laws, it upends society because it shatters trust while nullifying the social contract that binds us together in peace and safety.

State ethics laws are an attempt to force the government to rule themselves honestly.

Hubbard ignored the very ethics laws he championed and would do it all again.

He deserves punishment for his unlawful acts, and his prison sentence should stand as a reminder to others that justice doesn’t play favorites.

Hubbard did the crime, and he should serve the time.

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Bill Britt

Perspective | Can the Legislature write a stronger, clearer and enforceable ethics code? There’s a way

Bill Britt

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When the cell door closed behind former Alabama Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard at 5:05 p.m. on Friday, Sept 11, 2020, there was a momentary sign of victory, but also a chill braced the state’s political landscape.

What happens next will be most consequential as the Alabama Supreme Court, and to a lesser degree the Court of Criminal Appeals, set in motion a need to rewrite certain aspects of the Alabama Ethics Act.

Due to the court’s tortured opinion, the Legislature will be forced to revise portions of the ethics statute to correct the so-called flaws the court found.

The question is, will they refine and reinforce the statute or dilute and weaken it?

Given the recent legislative history, the chances are likely that they will opt for the latter unless the press and public pay scrupulous attention to any changes to the present legislation.

Fortunately, there already exists a framework from which the 2010 Ethics Act can be rewritten to make current law better.

And there are some faint but encouraging signs that not all lawmakers and public officials will work to undermine the law. But in Alabama politics, there is often a vast sea of gray between what politicians say and what they do.

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In April, when the ALSC tossed six of Hubbard’s convictions, current Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon said, “The Supreme Court’s ruling has made it clear that our ethics law has flaws that must be addressed. Our task now is to fix those flaws without weakening any of the provisions that make our ethics law among the toughest in the country.”

After the court’s ruling, Gov. Kay Ivey released a statement saying, “I support seeking clarity on our state’s ethics laws to ensure those who want to abide by them may not be unfairly targeted,” Ivey said. “However, let me be abundantly clear, I do not support weakening a system that is meant to hold our elected officials accountable. The rule of law must be upheld.”

Attorney General Steve Marshall’s comments on the courts finding were on target, “While I am pleased that the Supreme Court agreed that former Speaker Hubbard broke the law and will be held accountable for his abuse of power, I am also disappointed in the court’s interpretation of Alabama’s ethics law concerning the definition of a principal,” Marshall said. “While I can live with the court’s insistence on a clearer definition of principal, going forward, that definition must also be strong.”

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The court’s ruling on principals smells more political than judicial. The current definition is not necessarily murky but has jeopardized some of the state’s political and business elites.

Ethics reform legislation that strengthened and clarified the Alabama Ethics Act of 2010, was approved by Republican House and Senate leadership in 2017, but quietly died because of politics as usual.

The legislation was written under the guidance of then-Attorney General Luther Strange with Matt Hart and Mike Duffy of the Special Prosecution Division taking the lead.

Lawmakers, ethics experts, and stakeholders were consulted throughout the process and eventually agreed that the bill would fix major concerns found in the 2010 Ethics Act.

An annotated version of the bill is still available on the attorney general’s website, where it could be quickly taken out of mothballs and prepared for passage.

This existing bill would substantially improve, the Alabama Ethics Act. It also codifies current law and can easily be updated to include the decisions of the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals and various advisory opinions from the Alabama Ethics Commission.

The proposed legislation from 2017 achieves three important goals: (1) encouraging honest people to serve in government by clearly defining the line between legal and illegal activity; (2) creates a clear and definite process through which people serving in government can obtain guidance regarding where a particular situation falls on that line; and (3) ensuring that those persons who violate the public’s trust are held accountable.

Specifically, the Act has been revised as follows: Improves the definition of “principal” to make clear that any person in a business that directs the activities of a lobbyist is a principal, while others in the business or on boards are not necessarily principals. This bill also gives the Ethics Commission more flexibility in identifying principals in disclosure forms.

Enforcement for minor violations is improved by giving the Ethics Commission and attorney general or appropriate district attorney more flexibility, subject to specified criteria, in resolving minor violations through administrative resolutions for public employees.

This bill also narrows the Act’s application to lower-level public employees to ease compliance and improve enforcement. To that end, it exempts grade school teachers, higher education athletic coaches, police officers, firefighters, and other first responders from the limitations on taking things of value from lobbyists and principals, filing statements of economic interest, and asking a lobbyist for something. Additional lower-level public employees are also exempt from filing statements of economic interests. The bill further provides discretion for the Ethics Commission and the Attorney General to exempt any class of public employee supervisors, subject to specific criteria.

The framework of the 2017 presented legislation offers many needed additions and restrictions.

The legislation offered in 2017, had a broad agreement, among lawmakers, business interests, lobbyists and others, and while massive, it was painstakingly reviewed and revised.

Hubbard’s imprisonment and the court’s ruling opens a door for the Legislature to create an even better ethics act, but it must be done with care and subject to rigorous oversight.

Justice prevailed in the Hubbard case even while it was assaulted at every turn.

Now it’s time for the Legislature to ensure that the ethics code is more robust, precise, and enforceable.

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