By Brandon Moseley
Alabama Political Reporter
On Thursday, May 7, the Alabama House of Representatives passed a prison reform bill to attempt to deal with the State’s prison overcrowding situation. The Senate has already passed an earlier version of SB67. The Senate voted to accept the House changes and concur. The landmark legislation now goes to the Governor.
Alabama Governor Robert Bentley (R) said in a statement, “Today’s passage of SB67 is a historic day for Alabama as we take a significant step forward to address reform of Alabama’s criminal justice system. This legislation represents a unified effort by all three branches of government to make the criminal justice system more efficient. I want to thank Senator Cam Ward and Representative Mike Jones for their leadership and dedication in helping the state work toward reducing prison crowding and reinvesting in strategies to bolster public safety. I also want to recognize the members of the Prison Reform Task Force who worked hard to get the legislation ready for the 2015 Regular Session. After a full legal review, I plan to sign the bill.”
The Alabama Policy Institute (API) issued a statement to thank Senator Cam Ward and Representative Mike Jones for their work on this legislation to alleviate Alabama’s severe prison overcrowding problem. They also thanked the Council of State Governments Justice Center for leading the legislature’s prison reform task force through the process of identifying solutions and then reaching a consensus on how to best address the challenges Alabama faces in our prisons.
API Vice President, Katherine Robertson, notes, “I am very proud to have been a part of the Prison Reform Task Force. This collaborative effort has provided the necessary catalyst of meaningful reform to Alabama’s prison system. The work isn’t over, but we have now taken a significant step towards solving a problem that has been decades in the making.”
Prison Reform Task force head state Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) told reporters. “I would like to commend the house leadership for making it (prison reform) a priority.” The House has been very good about finding the money to pay for this. Ward said that the state’s Correctional system is at 192 percent capacity.
Sen. Ward continued, “This bill and the prison construction bill that accompanied it will take that down to 138 percent over a five year period.” The bill handles what you do on parole, reforms parole so that technical violators lose their parole and end up back in prison for years because they technically violated their parole. The bill also creates a class D felony for things like petty theft or drug possession. Offenders could get 1 to 5 years in prison and are not subjected to the habitual offender. This worked well in Texas and North Carolina.
Sen. Ward said that the Plata decision in California showed that the courts are demanding that you have got to reduce your number down to 137 percent. California ignored the courts twice and were taken over. The takeover has already cost California a half a billion $$ in fines and fees alone.
Ward said that No one is getting out early. It deals with parole and how we send people in. We will not see a dramatic change from this year to next year. No one is being released early. That is what we are trying avoid: dangerous offenders being released suddenly into our community.
State Representative Thomas Jackson (D-Thomasville) said in debate on the House floor, “If we don’t take responsibility for it the federal government will come in and take over and solve it for us.”
Jackson said that the bill was a good starting but point did not go far enough because it doesn’t do anything to stop the pipeline that feeds the prison system. “Children drop out of school in the fourth grade because teachers turn them off…Grade four is where the pipeline starts…We call our system Corrections because it is not really corrections. We don’t correct anybody’s behavior.”
Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) agreed: “We have to follow this up with a next step. There are some pieces in the legislation that will help but while working on this I saw there is a lot more that we can do.”
Rep. Mike Hill (R-Shelby County) said, “Thank you Rep. Jones for doing this.” The county sheriffs have concerns on how much this is going to cost them. If there is an issue we could be back in a year. I am excited that you brought this bill.
Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) said, “This ain’t a bad bill. I don’t think it is enough. It ain’t going to do a heck of a lot for overcrowding. Anytime you have over 200 percent overcrowding you can’t do much about it with a bill.”
Rep. Rogers said, I have talked to the people in Washington and they say you have to bring a major piece of legislation each year for the next few years. They are not letting you out of the lawsuit. They are telling me that we are going to have to release prisoners. This is a good bill and is a step in the right direction.
Rep. Jones said that this plan will decrease Alabama’s prison population by 4813 over 5 years. This bill deals with recidivism. There is a need for a follow up bill and I am committed to working with you on that for the next session.
Rep. Rogers said “I want you to realize that this is not enough.” Prison wardens will tell you that we got 50 percent that shouldn’t be here. Tutwiler is worse than that. You have one guard for 200 prisoners. We got to hire more guards. We have got to release more prisoners. We have got a parole board that only meets 3 hours a week and then they don’t want to release anybody.
Rep. Jones said that the prison population fluctuates. It has been nearly 26,000. Right now as of yesterday it is 24,867. Goal is to get down to 138 percent capacity because that is the mark used in the California case. 4815 that is a large number.
Rep. Chris Sells (R-Butler County) said, “I would like to thank you for all the work you have done on this bill. If this is bad for Alabama’s sheriffs are going to come back again.
Rep. Jones said I have a letter from the North Carolina Sheriffs association reassuring the sheriffs. These numbers include those in county jails. The State has contracts with about ten county jails to hold State prisoners.
Rep. Rogers asked, Do you believe that we can get by without building new prisons?
Jones that is part of the problem we are trying to address with the companion bill, HB620. Some facilities are so old that they are falling down. Some building will have to be replaced.
Rep. Jones said that recidivism is the biggest concern that we have.
Rep. Laura Hall said that statisticians look at the number of young black boys in the third grade who can’t do math and read at grade level to calculate the number of prison beds they are going to need to build.
Sen. Ward said, “We are going to have to do more so that abuse allegations go down.” We have got to add bed space. A component has to be construction. Add on a wing where we already own the land. Construction is a part of anything we do.
The Alabama Prison task force voted to extend its service for another year to continue the study and discussion of improving Alabama’s prison system.
Ward said that over the next year the commission will look more into the abuse allegations, mental health, and faith based initiatives. Public safety is first and foremost. “What we are doing is not working.”
Sen. Ward said, This won’t happen immediately but we have to do it or the federal government will do it for us.
Three mental health crisis centers coming to Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Mental Health Commissioner Lynn Beshear said.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Wednesday announced an $18 million project to create three new mental health crisis centers to be located in Mobile, Montgomery and Huntsville.
These centers, once in operation, will reduce the number of people suffering from mental health crises who are hospitalized or jailed, Ivey said during a press briefing in front of the Capitol Building in Montgomery.
“When these facilities are open and fully staffed, these centers will become a safe haven for people facing mental health challenges,” Ivey said.
Lynn Beshear, commissioner of the Alabama Department of Mental Health, said during the briefing that the centers will provide “recovery based” care with “short term stays of a few hours, or up to a few days, to provide treatment, support, and connection to care in the community.”
“Today marks a culture change in Alabama for treatment of individuals with mental illness and substance use disorders,” Beshear said.
Beshear said AltaPointe Health in Mobile will operate one of the three facilities, and once built it is to serve Mobile, Baldwin, Clarke, Conecuh, Escambia, Monroe and Washington counties with 21 new beds, including 15 temporary observation beds. Altapointe will begin with a temporary space while constructing the new facilities, she said.
Beshear said the Montgomery Area Mental Health Authority is partnering with the East Alabama Mental Health Authority and the Central Alabama Mental Health Authority to serve the 11 counties in Region 3 with 21 new beds, including 10 temporary observation and respite beds.
“The regional crisis center will be located in Montgomery, and will be open to walk-ins and for drop off by law enforcement, first responders and referrals from emergency rooms,” Beshear said.
Wellstone Behavioral Health in Huntsville was selected to open the third center, and will do so at a temporary site while a new facility is being built, with the help of an additional $2.1 million from local governments, Beshear said. That facility will eventually have 39 beds, including 15 for temporary observation and 24 for extended observation.
“There’s not a day that goes by that after-hours care is not an issue in our state,” said Jeremy Blair, CEO of Wellstone Behavioral Health, speaking at the press conference. “And so I applaud the Department of Mental Health and the leaders for their efforts in recognizing that and taking it a step further and funding our efforts here.”
Asked by a reporter why a center wasn’t located in Jefferson County, one of the most populous counties with a great need for such a center, Ivey said those residents will be served in one of the other regions.
“Plans are underway to continue this effort. Today’s beginning, with these three crisis centers, is just the beginning,” Ivey said.
Ivey added that request for proposals were sent out for these three centers and “it was a strong competition for the location of these three crisis centers.”
Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, said during the briefing that more than a year ago, Ivey asked him what the state should be looking at, and that he replied “we’re failing miserably in mental health.”
Ledbetter said Ivey asked him to take on the challenge of correcting the state’s response to mental health, and a team was created to do just that.
“Working together, today’s announcement will not only change Alabamians lives, but will help to save lives,” Ledbetter said.
Ainsworth returns to work after testing positive for COVID
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Wednesday announced that he was returning to work that day and had met public health requirements for quarantining after testing positive for COVID-19 some time last week.
Ainsworth’s office on Sept. 21 announced he had tested positive earlier that week, having been tested after someone in his Sunday school class tested positive for the disease.
“While many have battled with coronavirus, my symptoms never progressed beyond some mild congestion that I usually experience with seasonal allergies,” Ainsworth said in a statement. “During the quarantine period, I participated in several Zoom calls, caught up on some office work, spent some quality time with my family, and completed a number of overdue projects on my farm.”
Members of Ainsworth’s staff who were in close contact with him haven’t tested positive for COVID-19 but will remain in quarantine for a full 14-day period as a precaution, according to a press release from Ainsworth’s office Wednesday.
“Ainsworth once again urges all Alabamians to practice personal responsibility, which may include wearing masks, maintaining social distancing whenever possible, and taking other precautions to lessen chances of exposure to COVID-19,” the press release states.
Ainsworth still disagrees with Gov. Kay Ivey’s statewide mask mandate, he said. According to the release, he considers such orders “a one-size-fits-all governmental overreach that erodes basic freedoms and liberties while removing an individual’s right to make their own health-related choices.”
The wearing of cloth or medical masks has been proven to inhibit the spread of COVID-19 and the more people who wear masks, the better. While not perfect, masks limit the spread of respiratory droplets that may contain infectious virus shed from the nose and mouth of the mask wearer.
It is possible — even likely — for symptomatic, pre-symptomatic and mildly symptomatic people to spread the virus. That’s why it’s important to wear a mask even when you’re not sick.
Cloth masks offer only minimal protection from others who are not masked, meaning that masks are not simply a matter of personal safety but safety of others. Masks are also only effective when worn over both the mouth and the nose. [Here’s a guide on how to wear masks properly.]
Dr. Deborah Birx, coordinator of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told Ivey after she announced the statewide mask order that it was a “brilliant” idea. The order has been credited by Alabama infectious disease experts as having dramatically reduced the number of cases, hospitalizations and deaths in the weeks after the order went into effect.
Dr. Don Williamson, president of the Alabama Hospital Association, told APR on Tuesday that from personal observation he is seeing more people not wearing masks, or wearing them improperly, and said the state could dramatically reduce the risk of COVID-19 if the public regularly wore masks and wore them properly.
Hospitalizations of COVID-19 patients in Alabama on Monday crossed the 1,000 mark for the first time since Aug. 31 — a sign that Alabama may be headed for another peak in hospitalizations as the state prepares for winter and flu season.
Faith in Action Alabama calls on law enforcement to protect voters from harassment
“In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.”
Nine clergy members from across the state have signed an open letter calling on local and state law enforcement to protect voters against intimidation and harassment at the polls.
The clergy are leaders in Faith in Action Alabama, a regional association of Christian congregations affiliated with the national group Faith in Action, the largest grassroots, faith-based organizing network in the country. It seeks to address a range of issues like gun violence, health care, immigration and voting rights.
This is their letter:
Across our country and here in Alabama, it is being seen that citizens are turning out in record numbers to vote early and by absentee ballots. It is very heartening to see so many of our fellow citizens energized and committed to exercising that most fundamental and critical duty of citizenship, the use of their franchise. As servant leaders of an ecumenical association of nearly 2,000 faith communities across our state we are certainly encouraging our congregants to fulfill this duty either through early, absentee or day of election voting. For us this is not only part of our civic duty, but as people of faith obligation as well.
Unfortunately, it it also largely known that there are forces in our country that are actively, publicly and fervently at work to suppress the votes of some of our fellow citizens. We write to implore you to use the full authority of your office and department to ensure that those who seek to vote, especially on November 3, 2020 are not assailed or intimidated by illegal harassment in their polling places. We believe these threats are pervasive enough and real enough that proactive measures should be in place as citizens come to vote throughout that day. The strong, visible presence of uniformed legitimate law officers will hopefully prevent any attempts at confrontation or intimidation and violence.
The history of our state is marked by the efforts of tens of thousands of Alabamians who marched, protested, brought legal actions, shed their blood and some even gave their lives that every citizen of this state might have full and free access to the ballot box. In these harrowing days it is incumbent upon all of us as citizens and you and your colleagues as law enforcement professionals to do all we can to maintain this right secured by so much courage and sacrifice.
Please be assured of our prayers for you and the men and women of your department who have the awesome responsibility of providing public safety and equal protection under the law for every Alabamian. If we, the members of Faith in Action Alabama’s Clergy Leadership Team, can be of assistance please do not hesitate to call upon us.
Rev. Jeremiah Chester, St. Mark Baptist Church, Huntsville
Rev. David Frazier, Sr., Revelation Missionary Baptist Church, Mobile, and Moderator, Mobile Baptist Sunlight Association
Bishop Teresa Jefferson-Snorton, Fifth Episcopal District of the Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Bishop Russell Kendrick, Episcopal Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast
Bishop Seth O. Lartey, Alabama-Florida Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church
President Melvin Owens, Alabama State Missionary Baptist Convention
Bishop Harry L. Seawright, Ninth Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church
Dr. A.B. Sutton, Jr., Living Stones Temple, Fultondale
Father Manuel Williams, C.R., Resurrection Catholic Missions of the South, Montgomery
Report: Alabama’s Black Belt lags behind state in economic prospects
Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
It took Marquis Forge five years and 18 banks before he and his partner were able to open their company, Eleven86 Water, in Autauga County, just north of the Black Belt, and a report released Tuesday shows how Black Belt counties lag behind others in economic prospects and investments in businesses.
Forge, a former University of Alabama football player, told reporters during a briefing Monday that he considers Autauga County, which borders the Black Belt’s Lowndes County, part of the Black Belt, and said it shouldn’t have been so difficult to access the capital needed to start a business.
The report released Tuesday by the University of Alabama’s Education Policy Center titled “Black Belt manufacturing and Economic Prospects” is the last in the center’s Black Belt 2020 series, and found that only four of the state’s 24 Black Belt counties, as defined by the center, are above the statewide average of 22.4 businesses per 1,000 residents, and just one, Montgomery County, was above the 2018 statewide average of personal income of $43,229.
Researchers also found that just three Black Belt counties are above the state’s average in gross domestic product being produced by counties of $45,348.
“To achieve Governor Ivey’s ambitious goal of 500,000 a million more Alabama workers with skills by 2025, all hands have to be ‘on deck.’ It will require higher labor force participation rates, particularly in the Black Belt, where the average is 20 points below the statewide average,” said Stephen Katsinas, director of the university’s Education Policy Center and one of the authors of the report.
“Due to smaller economies of scale, our approaches to education, workforce development, and community building will have to be different to reach Alabama’s Black Belt,” Katsinas continued. “In the longer term, we first must define the Black Belt, because you can’t measure what you can’t define. Then we must do what West Alabama Works is doing–go where the people are to bring hope by connecting them to a well-aligned lifelong learning system that makes work pay.”
Donny Jones, COO of Chamber of Commerce West Alabama and Executive Director of West AlabamaWorks, told reporters Monday that one of the keys to helping the Black Belt will be helping state and Congressional legislators understand the nuances of rural Alabama.
Jones said the state should look at how colleges are graded, and that many smaller colleges don’t get credit for putting students through programs that get them short-term certificates that lead to jobs.
“Those are some of the things on the statewide level that we can really start to work on,” Jones said, adding that they’ve already begun teaching modern manufacturing in Black Belt high schools that gives students college credits toward an associates degree while still in high school.
“I think that’s very important for individuals to understand the impact that we can have in our higher ed and our K-12 system, really works hand in glove to move the needle for workforce development,” Jones said.
Jim Purcell, State Higher Education executive officer of the Alabama Commission on Higher Education, told reporters that it’s also important to look at one’s own community and identifying what is “unique and special,” and said he was recently in Autauga County, where he is from, and bought two cases of Eleven86 Water because he remembered how good the water there was.
“I think that’s what you’ve done, is you’ve taken the gift that Autauga’s environment has and enhanced it, so that the people can benefit from it,” Purcell said to Forge. “I think that’s the key.”
Asked what he’d tell state legislators to spur them to make changes so that other entrepreneurs wouldn’t have to struggle as hard as he did to open a business, Forge said he would ask for a clearer path for assistance.
“Instead of digging down through a tunnel with a spoon I would have someone outline the tracks on getting funds and assistance from local, state and the national level, because there are funds out there,” Forge said.
After going to 18 banks to get the financing he needed, he still had to liquify all his assets to make it happen, Forge said.
“How many people are going to do that?” he asked. “We shouldn’t have to do that.”
To read all of the Education Policy Center’s reports on Alabama’s Black Belt, visit here.