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Policy Makers Brief Birmingham Young Republicans on Prison Reform

Brandon Moseley

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By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter

On Friday, March 13, members of Alabama’s Prison Reform Task Force briefed the Greater Birmingham Young Republicans (GBYR) on impending prison reform legislation. Alabama’s prisons are at 192 percent capacity and state officials fear a costly federal takeover of the State’s chronically underfunded corrections system. For the last nine months, the task force, headed by State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), has been studying how to gradually reintegrate non-violent offenders from the state’s overcrowded prisons to Alabama society without an increase in crime.

Senator Ward, Alabama Department of Corrections Deputy Commissioner for Government Relations Jeffery Williams, and Judge Teresa Pulliam spoke to the GBYR area political leaders, and attorneys at Cantina Laredo in Birmingham prestigious new Uptown Development near the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Center. The GBYR is chaired by Jackie Curtiss.

Commissioner Williams said that everyday life skills like getting a job and writing a resume are difficult for man of the prisoners. Williams who has worked his way up from prison guard, to warden, to his present position said that if we work with offenders reintegrating them back into society then recidivism is less than if they can go straight from jail back into society.

Williams said that the State needs to do a better job on offender transition. Community corrections is a significant player in keeping nonviolent offenders out of the prison system and gives sentencing options to judges other than probation or prison.

Have had a relationship over the years to working with the sentencing commission.

Judge Teresa Pulliam said that it is very important for the State of Alabama that we have this conversation. Governor Robert Bentley, Speaker Mike Hubbard, and Chief Justice Roy Moore have supported the work of the task force. The task force has worked with all aspects of the system. All of which are way understaffed and underpaid. Prison guards are putting their lives at risk every day going to work.

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Judge Pulliam said that this task force is dedicated towards dealing with those offenders who are what we call the revolving door offenders that keep coming and going. “They come – we let them out.” There is no way for them to get a job. We are doing nothing to stop recidivism.

Pulliam said Alabama can do this. Texas, Georgia, North Carolina, and South Carolina have all already done this. Alabama can see a drop in recidivism. I commend Senator Ward. This is not a popular subject to take on for legislators.

Senator Cam Ward said this is a complex subject, but it is very interesting. Ward said that he has served on both the Senate Judiciary Committee and the Budget Committee, which allows him to see both aspects of this.  Wards said that Alabama spend less than anybody else in the country on prisons, but incarcerates more than anybody else in the country (on a percent of the populace basis).

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Sen. Ward said that 55 percent of the prison population have a mental health disorder and 72 percent have a drug condition. 98 percent will come out at some point. We are spending money on a system that just does not work. You can’t just lock them in a cage and think somehow that cures them.

Ward said that it is politically popular to just say put everybody in jail. The problem is we do that but we are not willing to back that up with the financial resources to do that. Ward said that building enough prisons to solve our capacity problem would require over a half a billion dollars in new taxes. We could ignore the problem and eventually a federal judge will handle it. Real reform however saves money and it is smarter.

Judge Pulliam said that prisons have become overcrowded primarily with drug addicts that steal to support their drug habits. We incarcerate them and let them out with no job, no way to get a job  Now we are letting everybody out that can possible be let out because there is no room and often we let them out without a required supervision period.

Judge Pulliam said that we have to give hope and jobs to released inmates. If they are not going to get off drugs they are not going to stop stealing.

Williams said that presently 38 percent leave without any post supervision. We want every inmate that leaves prison to have some supervision. We need that period of supervision to combat recidivism. The average parole office has a caseload of 200 or more that is too much to be effective. Alabama has a 34 to 35 percent recidivism rate, with close supervision that is just 12 percent.

Sen. Ward said “Wouldn’t you rather have that than have someone released with no supervision released into your neighborhood? If you don’t comply you are going back on. That sounds good but the amount of money you can save through post incarceration supervision is tremendous. “Wouldn’t you rather them get a job pay their taxes and be a productive member of society rather than be a threat to society?”

Ward said that the Corrections System needs to make sure that released inmates address their mental health and drug abuse issues. This has been an 8 month process. We looked at what other states did and listened to judges, prosecutors, victim rights activists, the ACLU, and even inmates’ rights groups.

Ward said that the plan is to lower the prison population from 192 percent capacity to 132 percent capacity over five years. What we have proposed is something that nobody is completely happy with but everybody is 85 to 90 percent happy with. The bill that was released on Friday, the new substitute for SB 67, is about 121 pages. We did not break it up into ten parts, because if we did that then legislators will vote for the easy stuff and vote against the hard stuff.

Birmingham Attorney Justin Barkley who moderated the forum asked if the package goes far enough to avoid federal intervention. Ward thought it did.

Commissioner Williams said that persons convicted of the new class D felonies will be going into a community corrections programs. In many cases with class D offenders the victim is the defendants themselves.  The legislation addresses who will go to prions and how long they will stay without sacrificing public safety.

Judge Pulliam said that probation officers will punish minor offenses like a positive drug test or failure to report swiftly. I am a full-time criminal judge. That is all that I do. This program will be a way to deal with the situation immediately.

Sen. Ward said that most of the sentencing guidelines were made on the front end two years ago. We have had less people going to jail without an increase in crime. Ward said that with this new post release system there will there be a system to make sure that the convict complies with the law. Punishment for technical violators will be swift and sure. If you violate the terms you will spend time in jail.

Cam Ward said that the prison education budget is only $4.1 million, but only $38,000 of that money is actually going into skills training. You have a 2 year system that is diverting that money off.  We need to make sure that the money we are appropriating is actually used like it is intended.

Ward said, “We have to have a capacity increase. There is no way around it…Facilities that we built in the 1930’s and 1950’s can not be upgraded to where they are safe…You cannot upgrade Tutwiler…We will call for a minimum of 5000 new beds over the next five years. To think you can avoid that is ludicrous.”

Williams said that the state legislature gave us $5 million to add new officers. The Corrections System is losing officers to to other law enforcement agencies where they get a weapon and a vehicle. We need to improve the working conditions. Last year 433 new officers were able to get through the academy; but the system is still struggling after a 2010 dip in funding led. I think this will help.

Ward said that this plan will cost about $130 million over the next five years, but how much are you going to spend versus taking another path?  Simply building our way into compliance would cost $700 to $800 million. This plan will require a revenue increase, but that was already planned.

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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Is “herd immunity” a reasonable strategy for Alabama? Evidence suggests it’s not

State Sen. Del Marsh suggested herd immunity may be the only strategy for Alabama going forward. The science behind such a strategy is still in question, and what evidence is available suggests it may be hard if not impossible to achieve.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Alabama Senate Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, on Thursday caused an uproar when he told a reporter that he’d like to see more Alabamians get infected with COVID-19 so that we could “start reaching an immunity.” 

Marsh, a member of Gov. Kay Ivey’s COVID-19 task force, was speaking to a CBS 42 reporter about what’s called herd immunity, which means a percentage of a population gets a disease, gets over it and then has an immunity that prevents them from getting it again for a period of time.

Marsh’s suggestion that herd immunity may be the best, if not the only strategy, for dealing with COVID-19 is not new. It’s been a topic of discussion since the early days of the pandemic. Some countries have even attempted it. But the science behind such a strategy is still in question, and what evidence is available suggests it may be hard if not impossible to achieve.

Reaching herd immunity essentially means that a population is generally protected from the worst of a disease because enough people have immunity. That can be achieved either through a vaccine or by allowing the virus to run its course until enough people have been infected. With more people infected and recovered, and with the assumption that fewer are susceptible to reinfection, transmission of the virus would slow significantly — only because there are fewer people to become infected.

Without a vaccine, herd immunity as a strategy would basically mean giving up on trying to contain the virus.

The topic of herd immunity has been brought up throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, but public health experts and scientists are quick to say they don’t yet fully understand the true strength of acquired immunity, and there have been some cases of people becoming infected with the virus more than once. 

But that doesn’t stop some from arguing perhaps we should give herd immunity a try. Sweden did, and it went terribly, as Alabama’s State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told a reporter when asked about the Alabama lawmaker’s statements on herd immunity. 

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Marsh followed his original statement with a caveat about protecting those with pre-existing conditions and the elderly, yet it’s not clear how an open society bent on getting as many younger people infected as possible would do such a thing.

“I’m not as concerned so much as the number of cases, in fact, quite honestly, I want to see more people because we start reaching an immunity as more people have it and get through it,” Marsh said to CBS 42’s Reshad Hudson on Thursday. “I don’t want any deaths, as few as possible. I get it. So those people who are susceptible to the disease, especially those with pre-existing conditions, elderly population, those folks we need to do all we can to protect them.”

In Sweden, where officials initially allowed the virus to run its course, they were not able to protect more vulnerable populations from infection despite efforts to do so. Vulnerable populations do not live in a vacuum, and despite their best efforts to limit exposure, long-term care facilities still have some contact with the outside world.

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It didn’t take long after Hudson tweeted out a video of Marsh’s statements for the backlash to set in. When asked by a CBS 42 reporter for his thoughts on herd immunity as a solution, Harris, the state health officer, said it would lead to many more unnecessary deaths. 

“There is absolutely no reason to think at this point that getting infected will give you any degree of immunity. We simply don’t know that,” Harris said, pointing to the fact that scientists have not reliably determined how long immunity lasts or how strong it is.

“We’ve looked at countries like Sweden, who have tried to actually generate herd immunity among their population, and it’s been disastrous. They’ve had increased numbers of deaths much higher than their neighbors, in trying to keep their economy open. It does not work well at all,” Harris said.

Marsh tried to walk back his controversial statement the next day — sort of — but he still landed back on herd immunity as an avenue Alabama might take. 

“It was a poor choice of words on my end, but ultimately what I was trying to say, and people can look at it, there are very few choices we have,” Marsh told WSFA on Friday.  “Ultimately if there’s no vaccine, herd immunity is the only one I can think of that’s eventually going to take place.” 

In Sweden, where they gave herd immunity a shot, deaths in the country have been eight times higher than in neighboring Denmark and 19 times higher than in Norway, according to The Washington Post. One study found that after months of infections and deaths, less than 10 percent of the population had developed antibodies.

In Denmark and Norway, along with most of the European Union, many restrictions have been lifted because governments there have been able to get the virus under control using testing and contact-tracing.

In Spain, one of the hardest-hit countries in Europe, just 5 percent of people had developed antibodies, according to another study in the journal Lancet. That means that at least 95 percent of the Spanish population would still be susceptible to the virus despite the country recording 28,000 deaths and 250,000 cases.

In New York City, where 32,000 people have died from COVID-19, the state tested some 28,419 people in an attempt to determine how many people had developed antibodies. That survey suggested that roughly 21.6 percent of New York City residents had antibodies. That’s in New York — widely viewed as the hardest-hit city in the world.

The science of herd immunity in a virus as new as COVID-19 is murky, because researchers still don’t know important details about how the coronavirus behaves, and every geographic location is different, with varying cultures and health outcomes, but since Marsh threw it out there, let’s see what getting to herd immunity would look like in Alabama. 

Dr. Michael Saag, an infectious disease expert at UAB and prominent HIV/AIDs researcher, told APR in May that to get the epidemic under control we’ll need at least 70 percent of the population to have immunity. Epidemiologists have estimated that between 60 percent to 80 percent of a population would need immunity before “herd immunity” is reached, and the virus can no longer spread widely in that community.

In Alabama, that would mean 3,340,000 people in total would have to become infected, and at our current approximate death rate of 2.2 percent, that would mean 75,460 Alabamians would likely die in the process. But 1,077 people have already died in Alabama from COVID-19, so to get to a theoretical herd immunity, 74,383 more people in the state would likely die from the virus. The death rate could spike if more infections happen at once, overwhelming the state’s health system.

Because we’ve got statistics on COVID-19 deaths in Alabama, we can look and see what that would mean for those yet to die. Of those 74,383 potential deaths, 58,762 would likely be 65 years of age and older. Those aged 50-64 would make up 12,654 of the deaths to come, while 2,975 would be between 25 and 49 years old, based on current death demographics.

Black people would likely continue to die in greater numbers per capita than white people. Although Black people make up just 27 percent of Alabama’s population, they make up 44 percent of all COVID-19 deaths.

It’s important to note that none of these estimates are reliable because researchers still don’t know for certain how long a person is immune after recovering from the virus — and how strong that immunity is. It’s also not clear how accurate or precise antibody tests are.

Columbia University virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen told The New York Times that the “magical number of 60 percent for herd immunity” assumes that everyone infected has complete protection from a second infection.

“But what about people with partial protection?” she asked. “They may not get sick, but they can get infected and pass it along.”

The recent study in Spain published in The Lancet found that herd immunity with COVID-19 may be unachievable. The study, which looked at more than 61,000 people, found that 14 percent of those who tested positive for coronavirus antibodies, which means they had the virus and recovered, no longer tested positive for the antibodies in subsequent tests weeks later. 

“Immunity can be incomplete, it can be transitory, it can last for just a short time and then disappear,” said Raquel Yotti, the director of Spain’s Carlos III Health Institute and one of the authors of the study, according to Reuters.

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Alabama DHR announces grants providing temporary assistance for stabilizing child care

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The Alabama Department of Human Resources announced on Friday a new grant program to provide assistance to licensed child care providers in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Temporary Assistance for Stabilizing Child Care, or TASCC, grant program’s purpose is to stabilize the number of child care providers that are open and providing services, as well as encourage providers to reopen.

DHR is now accepting applications for TASCC grants. The deadline to apply is August 7, 2020. The total grant amounts will be based on each provider’s daytime licensed capacity with a base rate of $300 per child.

To be eligible for a grant, licensed providers must be open or plan to reopen no later than August 17, 2020, and continue to remain open for a period of one year from the date of receiving the grant award. As of this week, 1,306 of Alabama’s 2,448 child care facilities were open in the state.

“We are proud to offer this program as a support and an incentive to an important sector of our economy. These grants will give the support many providers need to reopen and assist those already open,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner. “This program is going to be vital for our child care numbers to reach the level required to provide adequate services as parents return to work. We have already made significant strides in reopening facilities over the past several months; in April only 14 percent were open while now 53 percent are open.”

These grants will provide support for paying employees, purchasing classroom materials, providing meals, purchasing cleaning supplies, providing tuition relief for families, as well as other facility expenses.

DHR recommends child care providers read all guidance prior to submitting a TASCC application. Child care providers need to complete the application to determine the estimated grant amount. Grant applications will be processed as they are received and grants awarded once approved.

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An online fillable application is available for the TASCC grant at www.dhr.alabama.gov/child-care/. The application must include an Alabama STAARS Vendor Code in order to be processed. For questions regarding the application, please email DHR at [email protected].

 

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Gov. Ivey awards grant for new system to aid child abuse victims

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Gov. Kay Ivey delivers the 2019 state of the state address. (CHIP BROWNLEE/APR)

Gov. Kay Ivey has awarded a $375,000 grant to establish a statewide network that will ensure that victims of child abuse receive immediate and professional medical care and other assistance.

The grant will enable the Children’s of Alabama and the University of Alabama at Birmingham Department of Pediatrics to collaborate with the Alabama Network of Children Advocacy Centers in creating the Child Abuse Medical System.

 “Child abuse is a horrendous crime that robs children of their youth and can negatively affect their future if victims do not receive the proper professional assistance,” Ivey said. “I am thankful for this network that will ensure children get the professional attention they need and deserve.”

The medical system will be a coordinated statewide resource that includes pediatric physicians, nurse practitioners, nurses and other medical professionals along with specialized sexual assault nurse examiners.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant.

“ADECA is pleased to join with Gov. Ivey and those dedicated people who are part of the Child Abuse Medical System to support these children at a time they need it most,” said ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell.

Ivey notified Tom Shufflebarger, CEO of Children’s of Alabama, that the grant had been approved.

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ADECA manages a range of programs that support law enforcement, economic development, recreation, energy conservation and water resource management.

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Courts

U.S. Attorney Jay Town announces resignation

Eddie Burkhalter

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U.S. Attorney Jay Town announced his resignation Friday. (WHNT)

Jay Town, the U.S. attorney for the Northern District of Alabama, on Friday announced his resignation and plans to work at a Huntsville defense contractor and cybersecurity solutions company. 

Town’s resignation will be effective Wednesday, July 15, according to a press release. 

“After much thoughtful prayer and great personal consideration, I have made the decision to resign as the United States Attorney of the Northern District of Alabama.  I have tendered my resignation to Attorney General William Barr. General Barr expressed his gratitude for my service to the Department of Justice and to the Northern District and, despite having hoped I would continue in my role, understood and respected my decision,” Town said in a statement. 

“I am extremely grateful to President Trump, to whom I also tendered a letter, for his special trust and confidence in me to serve as the U.S. Attorney. It was an honor to be a part of this Administration with an unrivaled class of United States Attorneys from around the nation.  I will forever remain thankful to those who supported my nomination and my tenure as the U.S. Attorney,” Town continued.

Town said his job with the unnamed Huntsville defense contractor and cybersecurity solutions company is to begin later this year, and the company is to announce his position “in a few weeks.” 

“The Attorney General of the United States will announce my replacement in the coming days or weeks,” Town said in the release.  

Town has served in his position since confirmation by the U.S. Senate in August 2017. Prior to that appointment, Town was a prosecutor in the Madison County District Attorney’s office from 2005 until 2017.

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Attorney General William Barr in a statement Friday offered gratitude for Town’s three years of service. 

“Jay’s leadership in his District has been immense.  His contributions to the Department of Justice have been extensive, especially his work on the China Initiative and most recently as a Working Group Chair on the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice. I appreciate his service to our nation and to the Justice Department, and I wish him the very best,” Barr said in a statement.

The U.S. Justice Department in April 2019 notified Gov. Kay Ivey that the department’s lengthy investigation into the state’s prisons for men found systemic problems of violence, sexual assaults, drugs and corruption which are likely violations of the inmates’ Constitutional protections from cruel and unusual punishment. 

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Town’s office leads the discussions between the U.S Department of Justice and the state on the prison conditions. 

Problems with violence, deaths and drugs in Alabama’s overcrowded, understaffed prisons have not markedly improved in the year’s since the U.S. Department of Justice released its report.

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