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Governor Bentley Addresses Prison Reform

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Tuesday, June 10, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) announced in a press conference that he was launching the Justice Reinvestment Initiative (JRI), a comprehensive study of the State’s criminal justice system that the State hopes will identify ways to implement more cost effective criminal justice policies. The Council of State Governments (CSG) will lead Alabama’s effort with the JRI process.

Governor Bentley said, “The Justice Reinvestment Initiative is an opportunity for Alabama to examine the criminal justice system in order to reduce prison crowding and increase public safety. The number of inmates incarcerated in Alabama has significantly increased over the last decade.  With the Justice Reinvestment Initiative, we have an opportunity to examine areas to maximize efforts in the criminal justice system that will benefit our Department of Corrections. By participating in the study, we will have a detailed understanding of drivers behind Alabama’s prison population growth and identify ways to reduce growth.”

Governor Bentley named State Senator Cam Ward (R) from Alabaster as the Chairman of Alabama’s Joint Prison Reform Task Force. The task force will be composed of government, law enforcement officials, victim’s advocates and policy makers from both political parties in an attempt to identify better practices in ways that maintain and improve public safety in a more cost-effective manner.

Senator Ward said, “I am honored to be named as Chairman to the Joint Prison Reform Task Force.  It is well known that the Alabama prison system is financially strained and overcrowded. If we don’t go through this process to reform and re-invest in the system, the federal government will come in and mandate we release inmates. We must push our work to answer three essential questions: How to cut crime, how to lower victimization and how to reduce recidivism?”

The number of people incarcerated in Alabama has increased significantly over the last decade. Alabama prisons currently operate at approximately 190 percent of capacity, housing over 25,000 inmates in facilities designed to hold approximately 13,000.  The cost of corrections comes out of Alabama’s struggling General Fund, which has been hit hard by rapidly increasing costs of the state’s troubled Medicaid program.

In 2012 the State rejected a massive proposed increase in the size and scope of the Medicaid program under Obamacare, because there is simply not enough money in the General Fund to pay for the State’s required match.

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The primary purpose of having a state government is to provide courts to settle disputes and prisons to punish people that won’t abide by society’s laws. However, the massive expansion of things that government does has meant that courts and prisons increasingly get a smaller share of state revenues.  The corrections system has struggled under the budget constraints that it has been under since the economy crashed in 2008.  Alabama prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, and the State spends far less per prisoner than any other state.  Most experts believe that the preferred solution would be a massive bond issue to fund construction of new prisons, but politicians and the public alike do not seem enthusiastic about raising the revenues necessary to do that.

Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said participating in the JRI is a unique opportunity to focus on making Alabama’s criminal justice system more efficient.

The Council of State Governments (CSG), a part of The Pew Charitable Trusts, will provide free assistance to the state via their Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The justice center has worked with 18 states already. Last year, the organization helped to address prison problems in Michigan and Idaho, where a sweeping reform bill was recently signed into law.  The State of Alabama is being pressured by the Obama Justice Department to address problems with the corrections system, including an alleged history of sexual abuse of female prisoners at the Tutwiler prison for women by members of the Corrections Department.

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Ward said, “We brought in CSG because they have the experience and know-how to help alleviate our prison problems.  Several states have been through this, and as Texas Governor Rick Perry said at this year’s Conservative Political Action Committee, ‘You want to talk about real conservative governance, shut a prison down.’”

Ward said, “One thing we will not do is release dangerous criminals, or allow Alabama to be soft on crime, but we can be smarter about crime. All other options are on the table at this point.”
The Joint Task Prison Reform Task Force was formed during the 2014 Regular Session of the Alabama Legislature. The first meeting, a presentation of CSG’s findings was held Tuesday in Montgomery. Several more meetings will be held over the next six months, and the Task Force will recommend legislation to be brought before the 2015 Regular Session of The Alabama Legislature.

Thomas said, “No one strategy or group alone is going to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system. In order to make significant and long-lasting improvements, it is going to take a host of stakeholders and partners working together on dynamic, evidence-based solutions. Alabama’s participation in this Justice Reinvestment Initiative represents its willingness to devote the time and energy necessary to make those improvements. The Alabama Department of Corrections is pleased to be a part of this process and eager to work with the other participants toward transforming the state’s overall criminal justice system.”

Sen. Ward said, “This is the biggest challenge our State has ever faced. Alabama has to start being not only tough on crime but we have to be smart on crime. This effort represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to accomplish this goal. This effort has succeeded in other states and they saved money and reformed their systems at the same time.”

Adam Gelb, director of Pew’s Public Safety Performance Project said, “Alabama has an unprecedented opportunity to get more from its investment in public safety out of its own system.”

Bureau of Justice Assistance Director Denise E. O’Donnell said, “By launching this project and establishing an inter-branch task force, Alabama becomes the 21st state to take important steps through the JRI toward creating new justice reform policies grounded in research and state-specific data that will improve community safety.”

Chief Justice Roy Moore said, “It is no secret that Alabama’s prison system is in a crisis. The struggles our state faces with prison population, sentencing proportionality, and victim restitution strain not only the resources of our corrections system, but also our overworked court system. The judiciary interfaces every day with criminal offenders on either side of the prison bars, so I look forward to working with leaders from all branches of our state government, as well as the U.S. Department of Justice, to improve our prison system. Together I believe we can more perfectly fulfill the purpose of Alabama’s Constitution: ‘to establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, invoking the favor and guidance of Almighty God.’”

Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard (R) from Auburn said, “At a time when the Federal government continues to showcase its inability to work together, in Alabama we’re proving that every branch of government can come together to work toward a common goal.  Participating in the Justice Reinvestment Initiative process is a crucial and important step forward in finding specific, data-based solutions to the challenges facing our criminal justice system. We look forward to hearing the policy recommendations that will come from this effort and we will continue to work diligently with all entities involved to improve Alabama’s criminal justice system and overall public safety for all Alabamians.”

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said, “This partnership provides a unique opportunity for three branches of government to fully examine the challenges in our criminal justice system and determine the best path forward. I appreciate the leadership of Governor Bentley, my Senate colleague Cam Ward and others involved for their hard work and willingness to address these issues.”

Mike Hubbard said on facebook, “It was an honor joining Gov. Robert Bentley in announcing the launch of the Justice Reinvestment Initiative. The initiative is designed to study more cost-effective criminal justice policies. Our commitment to reducing state spending has never been stronger.”

The State is under enormous pressure to deal with this situation before Obama’s Justice Department asks a Federal court to allow them to take over the system, like they did in California.  Critics of this ‘reform’ effort fear that the public will face much higher crime rates as the State releases more hardened criminals into Alabama’s communities.

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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Education

Alabama’s First Class Pre-K program gets more national attention

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

Micah Danney

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The state’s First Class Pre-K program gives children advantages in math and reading that last into middle school, far longer than the gains studied in other high-quality pre-K programs, according to an article published in the International Journal of Child Care and Education Policy.

The article analyzed a recent study that found that students who attended the program were “statistically significantly more likely” to be proficient in both math and reading than those who did not.

While programs like Head Start and Tennessee’s pre-K program have been shown to lead to significant educational improvements when children enter kindergarten, those benefits appear to experience a “fadeout” within a year. 

The new research followed students through the 7th grade. Further research should examine the persistence of benefits through high school, according to the article, which was published by researchers from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, the Public Affairs Research Council of Alabama, ThinkData and the Alabama Department of Early Childhood Education.

The research “is reassuring and supports accountability for continued investments and expansion,” the article concluded.

The journal that featured the article is a publication of the National Institute of Early Education Research at Rutgers University.

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Congress

U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne announces new chief of staff

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Rep. Bradley Byrne

Congressman Bradley Byrne, R-Alabama, on Friday announced that Seth Morrow will serve as his chief of staff.

“As we enter the last half of 2020, my office remains busy assisting constituents and advancing our legislative priorities. I know Seth shares my focus on finishing out my term in Congress strong, and he is well prepared to move into the Chief of Staff role,” Byrne said in a statement. “My staff and I will continue working hard every day to fight for the people of Southwest Alabama and advance our conservative agenda.”

Morrow is a native of Guntersville and has worked for Byrne since June 2014, serving as deputy chief of staff and communications director. 

“I am grateful for this opportunity, and I’m committed to ensuring our office maintains our first class service to the people of Southwest Alabama. Congressman Byrne has always had the hardest working team on Capitol Hill, and I know we will keep that tradition going,” Morrow said in a statement.

Morrow replaces Chad Carlough, who has held the position of Byrne’s chief of staff since March 2017. 

“Chad has very ably led our Congressional team over the last few years, and I join the people of Southwest Alabama in thanking him for his dedicated service to our state and our country,” Byrne said. 

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Crime

Alabama Department of Corrections investigating inmate death

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Corrections is investigating the death of an inmate at the Donaldson Correctional Facility.

Robert Earl Adams, 40, died on Aug. 5 and although no foul play is suspected, a department spokeswoman in a message to APR said the exact cause of death is pending an autopsy.

“While Adams’ exact cause of death is pending the results of a full autopsy, at the time of his passing inmate Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, was not under quarantine following direct exposure to an inmate or staff member who previously had tested positive, and was not in medical isolation as a result of a positive COVID-19 test,” said ADOC spokeswoman Samantha Rose in the message.

Because Adams was not exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, he had not been tested, Rose said.

An ADOC worker who contacted APR Friday morning about the death, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions from ADOC administrators, said it’s suspected that Adams may have overdosed after being given a cigarette laced with a drug.

Adams is at least the sixteenth state inmate to die this year from either homicide, suspected drug overdose or suicide. Additionally, fifteen inmates and two prison workers have died after testing positive for COVID-19.

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Alabama GOP chair: “We expect our elected officials to follow the law” after Dismukes arrest

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Alabama GOP chair Terry Lathan said on Twitter.

Brandon Moseley

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State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, has been arrested on the charge of felony theft.

Alabama Republican Party Chair Terry Lathan said Thursday that Alabamians expect their leaders to follow the law. Her comments came in response to news that an arrest warrant had been issued for State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, on the charge of felony theft.

“Will Dismukes matter: We expect our elected officials, regardless of Party, to follow the laws of our state and nation,” Lathan said on Twitter. “No one is immune to these standards. It is very disappointing to hear of these allegations. This is now a legal matter and it must run its course.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Friday in a statement that Dismukes will get his day in court.

“As a former law enforcement officer, I have faith in the criminal justice process and trust that he will receive a full and fair hearing,” McCutcheon said. “Both Democrats and Republicans have been accused of similar crimes in the past, and we cannot tolerate such behavior whether the lawmaker involved has a D or an R beside their name.”

Dismukes has been charged by his former employer, a custom flooring company, of felony theft charges. Dismukes left that employer and started his own custom flooring company.

Dismukes, who is serving in his first term and is one of the youngest members of the Alabama Legislature, has been heavily criticized for his participation in a birthday party for Confederate Lt. General Nathan Bedford Forrest in Selma. Forrest was also the first grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

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The party in Selma occurred the same week that Congressman John Lewis’s funeral events were happening in Selma. Dismukes resigned his position at Valley Baptist Church when the Southern Baptists threatened to disassociate the Prattville Church if they retained Dismukes. He has defiantly refused to step down from the Legislature, but if convicted of a felony, he would be automatically removed from office.

Both Democrats and Republicans have called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives over his being the chaplain of the Prattville Sons of Confederate Veterans and his Facebook post lauding Forrest. The investigation into the theft predates the controversies surrounding Dismukes’s glorification of the Confederacy and Forrest.

Republican State Sen. Clyde Chambliss, who also represents Prattville, has called on Dismukes to resign.

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“Since first being elected in 1996, I’ve had a policy of not publicly criticizing other elected officials, but at this time I am making an exception since Rep. Dismukes is MY state representative. He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people of District 88,” Chambliss said. “The post is bad enough, the timing is even worse, but the real problem is that an elected official in 2020 would attend a celebration of the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings. He has had 24 hours to understand why people are so upset, but his interview on WSFA a few moments ago confirms that he is lacking in understanding and judgment — he should resign immediately.”

Alabama Democratic Party Chairman State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has repeatedly called for Dismukes to resign from the Alabama House of Representatives.

The Alabama Democratic Party recently said in a statement, “Will Dismukes is morally unfit for office. Republicans and Democrats statewide seem to agree. Unfortunately, despite the mounting calls for his immediate resignation, Will intends to stay in office and seek re-election without penalty from the Republican Party.”

“While Alabama Republicans hope this will be a distant memory when Dismukes runs for re-election in 2022, we are not going to let him off the hook,” the ADP wrote. “The Alabama Democratic Party is going to leverage every tool we have to send Will packing when he comes up for re-election in two years.”

“In our darkest hours in life there is still light in Christ!” Dismukes wrote on social media Wednesday. “As the storm continues to blow with heavy force, there is yet a peace that this too shall pass. I guess sometimes we find out if we have built our house on sand or the solid rock of Christ. Psalm 23.”

When Speaker of the House Mike Hubbard, R-Auburn, was indicted on 21 charges of felony ethics violations, he did not resign and actually remained speaker until a jury of his peers in Lee County convicted him on 12 counts.

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