The senator largely responsible for rewriting many of Alabama’s antiquated sentencing laws and who has led an effort to reform Alabama’s prisons will again chair the Alabama Senate’s Judiciary Committee.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, was selected to chair the powerful committee responsible for oversight of Alabama’s criminal justice system.
Ward, who has served in the State Senate since 2010 after two terms in the Alabama House of Representatives, sponsored historic legislation in 2015 that rewrote Alabama’s sentencing guidelines. The aim was to reduce Alabama’s prison population by moving non-violent offenders toward rehabilitation programs.
Since the legislation passed, in 2015, Alabama’s inmate population has decreased by at least 4,406 inmates or a little more than 14 percent. In October 2018, the population was 26,858. That’s down from a high of 32,523 in 2013.
Combined with sentencing reforms in 2013, the population has decreased by about 17.5 percent since that year. That has been welcome news to an Alabama corrections system that has experience historic overcrowding since the new millennium.
About 20,195 of those prisoners are held in Alabama Department of Corrections facilities, which were designed to hold only 12,412. That occupancy rate of about 160 percent is down about 15 percent since 2013, when prisons were verging on 190 percent occupancy rate.
“We have made a lot of strides with criminal justice reform, but we still have a long ways to go. We have to continuously innovate and use smart, data-driven approaches to figure out ways to keep recidivism as low as possible,” Ward said. “Criminal justice reform is an area where Republicans and Democrats actually agree on a lot, as evidenced by the fact that Cory Booker and Ted Cruz both voted for President Trump’s First Step Act, which I think is a smart reform of the federal sentencing guidelines.”
Ward has also sponsored or been a main supporter of legislation that would have built new prison facilities to replace aging prisons that were built largely in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Judiciary Committee chairman said he isn’t done looking at the issue of sentencing reform, though. And he views it as a bipartisan issue that both sides can work on together.
He also hinted at his support for an increase in infrastructure investment. The Republican leadership in the Legislature is considering a plan to raise Alabama’s gas tax for the first time since 1992 in an effort to fund infrastructure investment.
“The Republican majority has accomplished some huge conservative reforms over the past few years. Thanks to a strong commitment to fiscal responsibility, proration hasn’t happened once to Alabama’s schools since 2011, and we have passed a historic pro-life constitutional amendment, to cite just two examples,” Ward said. “In this new legislative term, I look forward to working with other legislators and Governor Ivey to tackle some of the remaining big challenges facing our state, like infrastructure modernization and education reform.”
Ward hasn’t stopped with sentencing reform. He led an effort to reform court costs and fees charged to juveniles. Last year, he proposed 10 different bills that focused on some issue of Alabama’s justice system. Six of those dealt directly with court funding issues.
Though some of them failed, like the juvenile justice reform bill, others have passed. Last session, he sponsored a bill signed into law that increased penalties for trafficking and distributing fentanyl, an extremely powerful synthetic opioid that claimed the lives of 157 Alabamians in 2016, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
On top of his role in the Legislature, Ward is entering his ninth year as president of the Alabama Law Institute.
The ALI, housed in the Law Center Building at the University of Alabama, has the goal to “clarify and simplify the laws of Alabama, to revise laws that are out-of-date and to fill in gaps in the law where there exists legal confusion.”
The Legislature will reconvene in March for the 2019 legislative session.
Legislators briefed on coronavirus crisis
Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey and her team on Thursday briefed state legislators on the latest developments on the coronavirus crisis that has gripped the state for the last ten weeks.
State Public Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris told legislators that the state has 13,058 confirmed cases of coronavirus infection. 528 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 COVID-19 related. More than 250 of those deaths have occurred in nursing homes.
Harris said, “So far, we have been able to fulfill all requests for medication in hospitals.”
Kelly Butler is the Alabama State Finance Director.
“The department is working diligently with each entity to provide aid/reimbursement throughout the state to responsibly use the CARES Act funding,” Butler said.
Butler said that new guidelines that the federal government issued regarding the funding are extremely detailed. Legislators will be given a special form to provide input as to what category or entity they see has the greatest need. Counties and cities will be issued guidelines to know what they can and cannot apply for regarding reimbursements.
Butler said that a website is being worked on to provide updates regarding applying for funds. For now, this information can be found on the governor’s website.
Department of Senior Services Commissioner Jean Brown also addressed legislators. Brown said that GA Foods has placed a successful bid with the Farmers to Families program. The Farmers to Families foods will be sending free foods to Alabama. The delivery of meals will begin after Memorial Day and end on June 30.
Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn told legislators that 100,000 masks and 2,500 gowns have been produced by ADOC textile factory workers. The staff and inmates have been provided at least 4 masks for their protection. Inmates have also received individual bottles of soap and hand sanitizer provided thanks to community support.
Dunn said that as of May 20, 138 inmates have been tested for the coronavirus, with nine testing positive. One of those inmates has died due to a pre-existing health condition. The other eight have recovered. Each person that has tested positive has been properly quarantined.
Alabama Department of Labor Secretary Fitzgerald Washington briefed the group as well.
Washington said that more than $1 billion has been paid out in unemployment claims and that the department has processed 88 percent of COVID-19 related claims. Washington said that ADOL has paid out more in total benefits in the last three months than in the previous six years combined.
Washington said that unpaid claims are being looked at daily. Over 500,000 claims were filed in the last two months, more than the last two years combined.
Washington said that guidelines relating to issues such as “employees refusing to return to work when applicable” or “employee quits job instead of returning to work” may be addressed on the DOL website.
Washington warned that fraud claims and online scammers acting as ADOL online are happening and that citizens should be aware of such and report any fraudulent activity to ADOL immediately.
State Superintendent Dr. Erick Mackey addressed the group on the plans for the Alabama State Department of Education.
Mackey said that immediate guidance for reopening schools in June will soon be distributed. This would be for students in 7th grade and above. Students 6th grade and below will be able to attend school beginning in July.
Mackey said that the CDC guidelines that were released on Tuesday have not been adopted by ALSDE. Mackey said that some of these guidelines are not reasonable or doable in our state.
“There are many moving parts to creating new procedures, etc., so please understand we are taking into consideration that not one size fits all,” Mackey said. “Our local schools will be making the final decisions as to what procedures are put in place for reopening.”
“We hope to issue recommendations to our schools by 19 June regarding reopening for the 2020-2021 school year,” Mackey told legislators. “We will be asking parents and students to implement new safety procedures, but these will be practical and easy to do.”
“We will leave the start date entirely up to each local superintendent,” Mackey continued. “We have asked that they assure they have time to prepare and adjust to the new procedures prior to opening.”
Mackey said that as of now, all school systems will be starting at some point in August. Distance learning for at-risk children is being looked at and there will be some sort of options for those needing this. Special Needs students needing therapies, etc. are also being looked at heavily.
“There are many moving parts to reopening, so we are working diligently to keep every student and every situation in mind,” Mackey said.
Later that afternoon, Ivey held a press conference to unveil the amended Safer At Home Order, which goes into effect at 5 p.m. today. The new orders, which opens many more businesses, will be in effect through 3 July.
Governor signs both state budgets
Monday, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey (R) signed the General Fund budget (SGF), the Education Trust Fund (ETF), and the PSCA bond bill.
“I appreciate the hard work of the Legislature during an unprecedented Regular Session,” Gov. Ivey said in a statement. “While we have yet to know the full impact of COVID-19 on our state, these budgets will ensure continuity of government, while being fiscally responsible. There is more work to be done, and I look forward to working with the Legislature in the days ahead.”
Despite the growing economic collapse as a result of the coronavirus crisis; both budgets were record amounts.
“This has been a unprecedented session due to the COVID-19 epidemic which imposed multiple obstacles for our elected officials to overcome,” said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan. “Our Republican leadership and governor managed to forge through passing both the General Fund and Education budgets to see our state through the next year.”
“While there was more belt tightening required than anticipated before the Coronavirus outbreak, Alabama’s economic situation is much better than many other states in the nation – in large part due to the fiscally responsible practices of our Republican supermajority since we gained control of the legislature in 2010,” Lathan continued. “We also are proud to highlight that no proration has occurred since the Alabama GOP takeover along with record breaking education budgets.”
“In fact, the 2021 General Fund Budget is $169 million larger than the previous year and includes funding increases for the Alabama Department of Public Health ($35 million), Alabama Medicaid Agency ($94 million), Alabama Department of Mental Health ($25 million), ALEA ($3 million, specifically for the hiring of additional State Troopers) and the Department of Corrections ($23 million),” Lathan explained. “Additionally, the Education Trust Fund is $91 million more than fiscal year 2020, and includes funding increases for our award winning early childhood education program and Alabama’s public institutions of higher learning (colleges, universities, and community colleges).”
Both Houses of the legislature voted to concur with the Governor’s executive amendment to SB161 a 2020 supplemental appropriations bill directing how $1.9 billion in federal CARES Act money can be spent.
I commend the Alabama Legislature for their cooperation by supporting my Executive Amendment to SB161. This friendly amendment ensures the CARES Act money will be immediately available to the people of Alabama and put to use under the intent of the U.S. Congress and President Trump. Our cities, counties and state, as well as places like our nursing homes, hospitals, schools and colleges have incurred many legitimate expenses because of COVID-19. I thank the members of the Alabama Legislature for supporting this amendment and for ensuring this money helps the people of Alabama who have been harmed by this disease. While no one could have predicted COVID-19, it is easy to conclude this pandemic has touched every aspect of our daily lives. I assure the people of Alabama that we will be with them at every step moving forward. Together, we will recover, and we will get Alabama back on her feet.”
The coronavirus global pandemic hangs over everything moving forward. Will there be federal aid to make up for lost state revenues? How much will that aid be? When can schools reopen? Will this winter see a resurgence in COVID-19 cases?
“We are confident Alabama will continue to grow its economy – even beyond what we experienced prior to the pandemic,” Lathan said. “Thanks to hard working, determined Alabamians combined with the sound conservative principles our Republican officials use to guide our state. In the end, we are grateful the Republican legislative body and Governor Ivey came together as a team to get the record breaking budgets up and out to Alabama, even with heavy burdens and concerns lingering due to COVID-19 in these unparalleled times.”
Monday was the last day of the 2020 Legislative Session.
Opinion | Alabama House Members answer the call to duty
When the Legislature convened its 2020 regular session in February, Alabama enjoyed record-low unemployment and record-high revenues in our state budgets.
Pay raises for educators and state employees were foregone conclusions, unprecedented improvements in mental health services offered to Alabamians were being passed, and new and expanded education programs were on the table.
But as legislators returned to Montgomery from the mandatory COVID-19 shutdown period — a little less than three months removed from the session’s start — an entirely new landscape greeted us.
Our record-high employment numbers have turned into record-high applications for unemployment benefits, and our state revenues have been negatively impacted by an economy gone sour.
But Alabamians have always risen to meet a challenge, and I am confident that the historic economy that our state once enjoyed can be rebuilt and made even stronger.
All of us who serve in the House of Representatives have publicly offered ourselves as leaders in our communities and our state, and as Alabama continues its journey on the path back to normalcy, it is important us to lead the way. We cannot expect average Alabamians to feel safe and confident in returning to work and resuming their jobs if the men and women they elect to represent them in Montgomery are not willing to do the same.
So on May 4, we convened at the Alabama State House to resume the regular session and complete the tasks that remained before us.
Our members came from the Tennessee Valley, the Gulf Coast region, and dozens of cities, towns, and crossroads in between, and we took important steps to safeguard their health in a cramped and aged State House where proper social distancing is difficult at best.
House members were required to wear face masks in all public areas, and once they entered the building, they proceeded directly to their personal offices to await the gavel to fall each meeting day.
In order to accommodate the House members at safe distances, only a handful were able to sit at their desks in the House Chamber while the others were spread across the spectators’ gallery and an adjacent overflow room and cast voice votes by microphone.
With one exception House Democrats boycotted the session and cited on-going concerns over the potential spread of COVID-19 as their reason, which was certainly their right.
I do want to commend State Rep. Rod Scott, D – Fairfield, the ranking minority member of the education budget-writing committee, for being the lone member of his party to attend the remainder of the session. His input was valuable, and his participation was much appreciated.
In addition, social distancing and health concerns prompted us to take the unusual step of closing access to the State House to the public, lobbyists, and other visitors, but video streaming of every public meeting was made available on the Internet..
Drafting responsible and prudent General Fund and Education Trust Fund budgets that accurately reflect the current economic climate is the Legislature’s only constitutional obligation and became our highest priority.
By approving Alabama’s spending plans now, rather than waiting until later in the year, many local systems avoided unnecessarily pink-slipping their non-tenured teachers, plans for the coming school year could take shape, and state agencies could begin implementing the adjustments in services that COVID-19 will likely demand.
We were also able to craft balanced budgets because budgeting and spending reforms enacted over the past decade have ensued that several hundred million dollars remain accessible and available in times of crisis, so Alabama is better prepared than many other states to weather this economy.
General Fund Chairman Steve Clouse, R – Ozark, and Education Trust Fund Chairman Bill Poole, R – Tuscaloosa, worked hard to assemble budgets that are fiscally-responsible, conservative, and disciplined.
Because of federal mandates and rulings in on-going lawsuits over state prison conditions, General Fund spending increased by 7.5% under the budget that was signed by the governor, but the increase was dramatically less than originally expected when the Legislature first convened in February.
The $7.2 billion Education Trust Fund budget that was approved included new funding for our award-winning “First Class” Pre-Kindergarten program and the reading and literacy initiatives. Additional dollars were also appropriated to help school systems absorb the loss of local revenues due to the Coronavirus.
Lawmakers also approved a $1.25 billion bond issue for school construction, which is the state’s largest capital improvement investment in history and the first in more than a decade. The bond issue will provide money to every city and county K-12 school system and to two- and four-year colleges and was made possible by retiring old debts and taking advantage of today’s historically-low interest rates.
Public officials at all levels of government are often subject to criticism, and I will admit it is often well-deserved, but they should also be recognized for jobs well done.
The men and women who participated in the unusual, extraordinary, and unforgettable final week of the 2020 regular session put their responsibilities ahead of their own health concerns and answered the call to duty. They stood tall when Alabama needed them most.
The members of the House of Representatives are some of the finest people I have ever known, and serving with them reinforces my confidence that Alabama’s best days still remain ahead of us.
Marsh says the governor “threw members of the legislature under the bus”
Both chambers of the Alabama Legislature voted to concur with Gov. Kay Ivey’s executive amendment to a bill appropriating $1.9 billion in federal CARES Act money sent by the federal government for coronavirus crisis needs.
Both Houses passed the compromise, but Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, denounced the governor’s conduct in how the compromise was reached.
“The governor threw members of the Legislature under the bus in tough times for no reason,” Marsh said. “This process requires trust, and there’s going to have to be a lot of trust rebuilt and the senate believes they were ignored. And that’s going to be problematic moving forward.”
Meetings occurred without the Senate leadership’s involvement, Marsh said. This was a Senate bill and the sponsor, Senator Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, should have been part of any negotiations, Marsh said.
Instead, the governor’s office crafted a compromise with House Ways and Means Chairman Steve Clouse, R-Ozark; Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, as well as other leaders of the House of Representatives.
Marsh complained that the governor’s compromise was particularly unfair to the overwhelmingly black Democratic minority in the Legislature.
“They truly have been left out of the process,” Marsh told reporters.
Under the plan that passed into law, spending of the $1.9 billion would have been approved by a committee that includes Marsh, McCutcheon, Albritton, and Clouse as the representatives of the legislature.
All four of them are white Republicans.
“The governor left us out,” said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro. “It is our people in the African American community that are dying disproportionately.”
Singleton asked for the governor to issue an executive order adding representation from the minority party to the oversight committee.
Marsh said that he would strive to represent both parties on the committee.
“My members feel confident they can trust me,” Marsh explained to reporters.
The Senate did vote to concur with the governor’s amendment.
“We felt it was time to move on,” Marsh said.
“This is by no means a perfect compromise however we are pleased that the Governor has acknowledged that the Legislature has control of funding as per the Constitution,” Marsh and Senate Majority Leader Greg Reed, R-Jasper, wrote in a joint statement. “Ultimately, we gave our support to the Governor’s Executive Amendment as it is the best deal for the people of Alabama.”
“We understand that it is imperative to start getting CARES Act money as soon as possible to those who are most in need and sending this money back to the Federal government would not be in the best interest of Alabama,” the Senate leadership continued. “At the end of the day this is a win for the Legislature, a win for the Constitution and a win for transparency when it comes to the distribution of funds.”
Marsh was stung politically by the governor’s attacks on his plan to use $200 million of the CARES Act money for a new State House.
“There were some things that were flat out lies,” Marsh said of the reaction to the Senate’s wish list they prepared on the CARES Act spending. “The fiscal office conducted the meeting for us,” where the now-infamous “wish list” was written by Marsh and members of the Senate.
“That was a Senate list,” the speaker of the House told reporters. “There was going to be changes” in the list if it had gotten to the House.
McCutcheon defended meeting with the governor without involving the Senate.
“In the House, what we were doing was to keep the process going,” McCutcheon said. “The governor could veto the budgets.”
McCutcheon said that given the difficulty in getting the members there logistically and the sacrifices of the staff and not knowing what conditions would be like in Montgomery going forward the House was not willing to risk a special session to prepare budgets.
Marsh said that the governor has lost the trust of the Senate.
Monday was the 21st and final day of the Legislative Session.
Both chambers did vote to sine die, ending this year’s session, though the session would have ended at the stroke of midnight anyway as Monday was the last possible day to meet under a restriction in the state constitution on the number of calendar days in a regular session.
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