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Prison fellowship changes lives

Cam Ward

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By Sen. Cam Ward

Life has its ups and downs. Sometimes only when we get outside of our own little bubble and experience something different can we truly appreciate all the challenges the world can offer. If we choose to hide our faces from uncomfortable subjects, it can lead to a much more narrow view of the world.

As a member of the National Faith and Justice Fellowship of the Prison Fellowship, I recently attended our Board of Directors meeting in Washington, D.C. This diverse group of United States Senators, Congressmen, Governors, and State Legislators gathered to discuss new ideas about how to help bring more Christian-based principles into our criminal justice system. The meeting was timely, as it coincided with the annual National Day of Prayer.

When we think of fellowship and prayer, it often seems contradictory to the criminal justice system. Someone goes to prison because they did something wrong in the crime they committed. The Bible even says in Isaiah 61:8 that God loves justice. Punishment is at the very foundation of our system of justice in the United States. Still, as I sat through this meeting, I could not help but think about the various parts of the Bible that admonish us to pray for everyone, even those who have gone down the wrong path in life. It is easy to pray for good people; however, it is a tougher soul searching experience to pray for those who have done terrible things in their lives.

In the United States today, 98 percent of those sentenced to prison eventually finish their terms and are released. That equates to roughly 700,000 people a year who leave the system and return to society. Thousands of Christian leaders throughout the nation visit prisons, talk with families, and comfort the victims of crimes. Listening to the stories that these leaders have shared with others, I am convinced that this compassion and fellowship has lifted the lives and outlook for many people who will have to move ahead despite their previous actions or experiences in life.

I applaud those who offer to bring light and hope to all of those who struggle in life. Both victims and offenders are children of God and those engaged in prison fellowship demonstrate this everyday. While the criminal justice system should be allowed to provide swift and certain justice, we should also continue to pray for all of our fellowmen.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Primaries next week

Steve Flowers

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Folks, our primaries are next week!  On the Democratic side, the Presidential Preference Primary will be the big show and will be interesting to watch.  On the right, the Republican Primary for the U.S. Senate Seat will be the marquee event.

In addition to the Senate Race, you have two open Republican Congressional Seats in the First and Second Districts. You also have some important statewide Supreme Court and Appellate Court races on the ballot.

Incumbent Supreme Court Justice Greg Shaw and Shelby County State Senator Cam Ward, are both running to be the Republican nominee for the Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, place number one.

Shaw is one of the most introverted, dignified people that ever ran for statewide office. He takes his role as a monk-like non-talking judge to heart. He has not and will not campaign. He thinks it is beneath the jurist to talk to people, much less campaign or shake hands.

On the other hand, Senator Cam Ward is the ultimate people person and campaigner. Ward has worked the state from one end to the other, campaigning in every nook and cranny and county. He has outworked Shaw 20 to 1. However, ultimately in today’s statewide politics, it all boils down to money.

Ninety-five percent of the people who vote next Tuesday will not decide or think about who they are going to vote for until next week. Then after they vote and elect one of them, they will not be able to tell you who they voted for or for that matter who is on the Supreme Court.  This one will be interesting and probably close. Whoever gets the most votes Tuesday will be sworn in for a six-year term in January. Winning the GOP nomination for a judgeship in Alabama is tantamount to election in the Heart of Dixie.

Two Jefferson/Shelby metro candidates are vying for a seat on the Court of Civil Appeals. State Representative Matt Fridy and Phillip Bahakel are vying for place number 2 on the Civil Appeals Court.

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The presiding Judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals, Mary Windom, should waltz to re-election. However, Criminal Appeals Judge Beth Kellum, who has done an excellent job, could have a tougher race with two opponents.

PSC President Twinkle Andress Cavanaugh has an alsoran liberal candidate in her race.

The winners of the March 3 GOP Primary or runoff on March 31 will win the 1st and 2nd congressional districts and go to Washington for 2 years.

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The fist district Mobile/Baldwin race is the best and most up in the air. It is a three man race between former State Senator Bill Hightower, Mobile County Commissioner Jerry Carl, and Mobile State Representative Chris Pringle. It will be interesting to see which two make the March 31 runoff.

Dothan businessman Jeff Coleman is the front runner to win the open 2nd Congressional district seat. The question is can he win without a runoff. It may be difficult with seven people in the race. He will ultimately win.

As earlier stated the GOP contest for the U.S. Senate is the marquee event on the scene next week. Jeff Sessions is the favorite to win back his seat. However, it will not be a cakewalk. It is doubtful he can win without a runoff. It is a spirited and close race between Coach Tommy Tuberville and Congressman Bradley Byrne to get into the runoff with Sessions. Former Chief Justice Roy Moore has done very little campaigning and will probably get less than 10 perfect of the vote.

All indications point to former Vice President Joe Biden winning our Democratic Presidential Primary. Over 75 percent of the votes cast in our Alabama Democratic Primary will be by African American voters, and Biden has received overwhelming endorsements from almost all of the African American hierarchy and leadership groups in the State. In addition, the two leading African American Democratic Leaders, Congresswoman Terri Sewell and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin, have endorsed Biden.

However, Joe Reed’s powerful Alabama Democratic Conference has endorsed former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg. It will be interesting to see how Bloomberg fares in Alabama next Tuesday. He has spent a lot of money.  

You will see an initiative on the ballot that will ask you if you want to make the State School Board appointed rather than elected. Gov. Kay Ivey is promoting a “yes” vote. She believes an appointed Board is better for education. She would appoint the State School Board, if approved.

Y’all don’t forget to vote.

Steve Flowers is Alabama’s leading political columnist. His weekly column appears in over 60 Alabama newspapers. He served 16 years in the state legislature. Steve may be reached at www.steveflowers.us

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | We can’t let up in the fight against gun-grabbers

Bradley Byrne

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The Second Amendment is under attack like never before in our nation’s history, but I am leading the fight to preserve your constitutional rights.

Last year, just weeks after taking power, House Democrats passed a bill to limit the constitutional right to own guns.  Their misguided legislation would do nothing to address the underlying problem behind actions of mass violence.  That bill, HR8, would prevent lawful gun owners from selling their guns to other law-abiding Americans.  If that bill became law, anytime a gun owner like me wanted to transfer or sell a gun, he or she would have to go through a government-sanctioned middle-man.  Of course, this process would be prohibitively time consuming and expensive.  The authors of this bill’s true intent not only was to freeze all gun transactions through the power of a slow and inefficient federal bureaucracy but to subject millions of Americans to federal prosecution.  Even transferring a firearm to a family member or friend could require federal permission!

Let’s not kid ourselves.  Criminals are not going to put their illegal enterprises on pause while waiting for permission to buy or sell a gun.  HR8 does nothing to stop crime and only burdens lawful citizens.  And it does nothing to address the mental health crisis behind so much of the mass violence we have seen.  During the debate on that bill, I introduced an amendment to strip out this anti-gun legislation and replace it with nationwide concealed carry reciprocity.  My amendment actually could make our country safer.  Unsurprisingly, Speaker Pelosi blocked my amendment.

Fortunately for gun owners, we have a true friend in the White House.  President Trump has been the biggest advocate for the Second Amendment ever to sit in the Oval Office.  To appreciate the significance of that, contrast his Second Amendment policies with those of his opponent in the 2016 election, Hillary Clinton.

In 2008 in District of Columbia v. Heller, in a major victory against zealous gun-grabbing liberals, the Supreme Court ruled against a District of Columbia law criminalizing handgun ownership.  That law made it illegal to possess an unregistered firearm in the city but also effectively prohibited registration itself, a blatant attempt to block constitutional rights to own a gun.  Clinton, however, disagreed with the Supreme Court’s ruling!  Can you imagine if we had a president in the White House who thought it should be illegal to own a gun?  Unfortunately, her beliefs are now standard for Democrat politicians.

The battle to preserve the second amendment continues in the courts.  Last year, I wrote an amicus brief, often called a “friend of the court” brief, to the Supreme Court.  The Court is working on a case, N.Y. State Rifle & Pistol Association Inc. v. City of New York, to determine if New York’s ban on transporting a handgun to a home or shooting range outside city limits is constitutional.  Like the District of Columbia law found unconstitutional in Heller, this law is a backdoor attempt to weaken your Second Amendment rights.  I was proud to have 120 lawmakers sign onto my brief as well as the support of the NRA and Gun Owners of America.

Last week, I signed on as an original cosponsor to an important bill to strengthen and protect gun rights.  The Lawful Interstate Transportation of Firearms Act would ban states from prosecuting lawful gun owners simply traveling through their state.  This commonsense legislation would protect against liberal states’ sneaky schemes to circumvent the Second Amendment.  I’ll continue fighting for this bill with my colleagues, including Mo Brooks of Alabama who introduced the bill.

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The gun-grabbers aren’t letting up, so we can’t stop fighting either. Rest assured I will keep leading the fight in Washington to protect your Second Amendment rights.

 

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Opinion | It’s time for prison mental health reform

Dana Hall McCain

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Two of the major items on Governor Kay Ivey’s 2020 agenda are finding solutions to the problem of Alabama’s overcrowded and broken prison system, and bolstering our mental healthcare system.

Both are badly needed, and in some ways intersect.

I understand the political challenge of getting folks excited about funding a major overhaul of something as unpalatable as prisons. It’s far easier to rally support for education, health care, infrastructure—heck, basically anything besides creating better conditions for those judged to have done wrong.

But the success of our effort to rehabilitate offenders and return them to society in better shape than the judicial system found them does have real consequences for the rest of us. Overcrowded prisons are a breeding ground for violence, further dehumanizing and corrupting those who’ve lost their way. Draconian mandatory minimum sentences strip judges of discretion to assign appropriate sentences and add to the overcrowding problem. 

A broken penal system can take people who made mistakes and turn them into hardcore criminals. The skillset prisoners are forced to learn to survive the sea of gangs and drugs behind bars will be the very one that causes them to fail after release, and get on the recidivism merry-go-round for a lifetime.

Few are discovering a better way to live, or learning how to make an honest living and stay out of trouble after parole. 

As it currently exists, our corrections system is an active contributor to the problem of recidivism. The governor can start the ball rolling, but the state Legislature is going to have to get in the game and do the hard work of crafting substantive solutions.

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Harder still, they must find a way to fund those solutions.

The other major task is creating a more comprehensive and responsive mental healthcare network for Alabamians who need these services. Those who suffer from mental health challenges, or who care for a loved one who suffers, will tell you that accessing care in Alabama has gone from difficult to almost impossible since the closure of key inpatient facilities several years ago.

Those lacking good insurance or the means to pay for expensive care out-of-pocket are wholly at the mercy of the state. Sometimes, even good insurance can’t help you out, if a bed to put you in just doesn’t exist.

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The crossroads of these two issues is that a significant number of individuals who find themselves on the wrong side of the law are struggling with a mental health condition. Many who struggle with an addiction to an illegal substance are trying to self-medicate for an undiagnosed or untreated mental health condition. Eventually, that addiction leads to a drug-related arrest and conviction.

Additionally, our lack of mental health resources means that law enforcement officers are often the first responders to a crisis. In the past, this resulted in a significant number of suffering individuals being arrested, when what they really needed was adequate care. 

Alabama House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter has taken up the cause of mental health reform, including developing more Crisis Intervention Teams to help law enforcement work with health care providers and families to reduce arrests and connect individuals in crisis to appropriate care.

That’s a wonderful, needed start. But again, the state legislature must find a way to expand the system to create beds where these CITs and their families can refer people for treatment. I’ve written before of the despair probate judges feel when families are pleading for help via commitment to a treatment facility, and no matter how legitimate the need, there is often no bed available to place that patient in. If a bed does exist, it’s not available for the length of time needed to achieve real stability for the patient. Our patchwork quilt of longterm and short-term treatment options in Alabama has massive holes in it, and it must be addressed.

These intersecting problems—prison reform and mental health reform—are real and impact us all at the end of the day. Does the Alabama legislature have the will to fix them? We should hope so.

Dana Hall McCain, a widely published writer on faith, culture, and politics, is Resident Fellow of the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and educational organization based in Birmingham; learn more at alabamapolicy.org

 

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | Every school should have a mental health counselor

Craig Ford

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In her State of the State Address, Gov. Ivey said that mental health would be a priority for both education and our prison system. Then she set a goal of having a mental health counselor in every school system.

While I applaud the governor for recognizing the challenges our schools are facing when it comes to students’ mental health, the reality is we need a mental health counselor in every school, not just one for each school system.

Our schools are staffed by excellent school nurses and guidance counselors who do an outstanding job trying to help these students with mental health needs. But mental health care is not their responsibility, nor is it what they are trained for.

And the mental health needs in our schools are much more prominent than you might think. It isn’t just dealing with kids who have ADHD or a learning disability. There are kids dealing with problems at home, like parents who are going through a divorce or even parents who have a drug addiction.

There’s a lot that happens in a child’s life between when they get picked up from school at the end of the day and when they get dropped off at school again the next day. And while our teachers, school nurses and guidance counselors do everything they can for these kids, what these kids really need is a mental health counselor.

Setting a goal of having one counselor in every school system is certainly better than nothing. I guess you could say it is a more easily achievable goal. But our state leaders weren’t elected to do the things that are easy. Our leaders were elected to do the things that are hard.

And the truth is if we don’t invest in our children with these needs today, then for many of them we will be investing in their imprisonment in the future. In fact, that’s how we got into this prison crisis in the first place.

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I have said many times before that we should be building super schools, not super prisons. It is always better to keep a child from ending up in prison in the first place, and if we make the right kinds of investments in education then we won’t need these new super prisons that Gov. Ivey and Gov. Bentley before her have been fighting for.

The main reason we have overcrowding in our prisons is because we never did anything to change the path these people were on before they grew up and became criminals.

Building super prisons instead of super schools is like treating the symptom rather than treating the disease.

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We should be focusing more on getting kids on the right path before it’s too late. As the old saying goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

And the first way we can prevent kids from turning to a life of crime is to recognize and treat their mental health needs while they are still young and have a chance at a normal life.

But only having one counselor to treat an entire school system is simply not enough to do the job right.

Of course, not every kid with mental health needs is on the path to prison. Many, if not most, are simply dealing with difficult or traumatic events at home that take place outside of school hours.

But those events affect what happens the next day in the classroom. These kids tend to have a difficult time concentrating, and often become disobedient and disrespectful. These things, in turn, make it hard for them to be successful in school and, ultimately, in life.

Like so many other issues, we all agree on what the problem is but getting to agreement on the solution is another matter. In this case, though, Gov. Ivey and state lawmakers seem to understand what is needed to fix the problem. They just don’t seem to be aggressive enough in their willingness to address it.

Having a mental health counselor in every school system is a step in the right direction and an improvement over our current situation. But let’s not set the bar so low. Our children deserve better than that. We don’t just need a mental health counselor in every school system; we need one in every single school.

Craig Ford is the owner of Hodges-Ford Insurance and the Gadsden Messenger. He represented Gadsden and Etowah County in the Alabama House of Representatives for 18 years.

 

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