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Crime

Opinion | Punishing violence, recognizing the dignity of work and the possibility of redemption

Cam Ward

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Police officers, sheriffs and district attorneys do heroic work every day to lock up criminals and keep our streets and neighborhoods safe. Yet many parts of our criminal justice system are broken, and layers of bureaucracy and a thicket of self-serving fees and outdated rules create barriers for people who have already paid their debt to society. Thankfully, in Alabama a consensus of law-and-order conservatives and left-leaning liberals has begun to reform the system to make sure that justice is served swiftly, but fairly.

For instance, right now there are 783 places in Alabama’s laws and regulations where, if a person has committed a crime, they are forever barred from receiving various occupational licenses. Frankly, this is part of a larger problem where we have way too many layers of bureaucratic licensure requirements, many of which seemed designed to create barriers to entry for aspiring young workers, rather than actually protecting consumers.

For people who have served their full sentence, once justice has been done, they should be able to get a job to feed their family, contribute to society and lessen the chance that they fall back into crime. Senate Bill 163, which the State Senate approved this last week by a 34-0 vote, says that once a person has served their full sentence and paid all restitution, they can petition a judge to obtain an order of limited relief — once obtained, an occupational licensing board or commission is prohibited from automatically denying a certification to someone who has such an order. The board or commission must give the case a fair hearing. This is conservative criminal justice reform that recognizes the dignity of work.

On the civil litigation side, if you are wronged or injured, your day in court shouldn’t depend on whether you can pay a court’s processing fees, most of which are designed to cover internal court costs. That is a pay-to-play system where only the wealthy can afford to have their grievances heard. That’s why I am also sponsoring a bill that will allow a judge in civil cases to waive docket fees if a person before the court is in financial hardship. The State Legislature has a duty to adequately fund the courts, while the courts themselves, as much as possible, need to cut down on the number of fees that are assessed. A person of low means shouldn’t have to choose between paying a fee or having their case heard.

Along similar lines, nearly everyone — especially in rural areas — needs a car or truck to get to work and school. Currently, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency can suspend your driver’s license for failure to pay a traffic fine. That’s an especially harsh penalty for single mothers and the many people who are driving between towns to bus tables at lunch and unload freight at warehouses at night to make ends meet. I have filed SB16 to prevent ALEA from suspending drivers’ licenses, if a judge has hard evidence that the person in question is indigent. We shouldn’t take away the ability to work from people over a traffic fine.

On the flip side, harsh and complete justice should be meted out to violent criminals. Yet over and over again, the State Board of Pardons and Paroles has made puzzling decisions to commute sentences or allow prison inmates to get out on parole, years before a full sentence has been served. That failure of duty by the Board has had tragic consequences. In July of 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with the brutal killings of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin’s 7-year-old great-grandson. Spencer, a man with a violent rap sheet going back to the early 1980s, had been granted parole by the Board in November of 2017 and released from prison in January.

Working with Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall, I have written a bill that will rein in the Board — if SB42 is approved, all Class A felons (these are rapists, murderers, drug kingpins and human traffickers) will be ineligible for parole until 85 percent of their sentence or 15 years has been served. The members of the Board of Pardons and Paroles haven’t abided by their own guidelines. This bill, should it become law, will force them to toe the line.

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Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb and Chilton counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard

 

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Crime

Alabama officials watching for possible armed protests

The Montgomery Police Department will have officers at the Capitol on Sunday, girding for potentially violent demonstrations.

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

It wasn’t clear Friday whether armed protestors would show up at Alabama’s Capitol building this weekend after an FBI internal report this week warned that there were plans for armed demonstrations in state capitals across the country until Inauguration Day.

First reported by ABC News and corroborated by numerous other news outlets, the FBI’s memo warns that continued violence targeting state capitols remains possible between now and President-elect-Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20. 

“Armed protests are being planned at all 50 state capitols from 16 January through at least 20 January, and at the U.S. Capitol from 17 January through 20 January,” the bulletin said, according to the Associated Press

Alabama Law Enforcement Agency spokeswoman Robyn Bryan, in a message to APR on Friday, said the agency continues to monitor activity for public safety concerns “and possible threats related to the ongoing protests across the nation.” 

“ALEA recognizes that United States Citizens have constitutionally protected rights to assemble, speak, and petition the government. ALEA safeguards these first amendment rights, and reports on only those activities where the potential use of rhetoric and/or propaganda could be used to carry out acts of violence,” Bryan continued. “Additionally, potential criminality exhibited by certain members of a group does not negate the constitutional rights of the group itself or its law-abiding participants to exercise their individual liberties under the First Amendment to the United States Constitution.” 

The Montgomery Police Department on Friday issued a warning in a tweet to anyone who might plan to bring a firearm to a demonstration. 

“Be mindful that it shall be unlawful for any person, other than a law enforcement officer, to have a firearm in his or her possession or in any vehicle at a point within 1,000 feet of a demonstration at a public place,” the department said in the tweet, citing a portion of Alabama’s state law.

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Montgomery Police will have officers at the Capitol on Sunday, Capt. Saba Coleman of the Montgomery Police Department said in a message to APR on Friday.  

“It’s no exaggeration to say that Trump’s army of domestic terrorists came close to mounting the first successful coup in American history,” said Margaret Huang, president and CEO of the Southern Poverty Law Center, speaking to reporters Friday during a briefing on a report the group released on right-wing extremists attempting to overshadow Biden’s inauguration.

“Now our nation stands at the edge of the abyss. Threats of violence are steadily escalating, with some of Trump’s followers talking openly of civil war. Law enforcement personnel are bracing for potential violence this weekend at the armed protests planned for Washington D.C. and all 50 state capitals,” Huang said. 

Michael Hayden, lead investigative reporter at the SPLC, told reporters during the briefing that the odds for violence “are a lot higher than I’ve seen in a long time.” 

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“And that’s largely to do with the rhetoric that we’re seeing,” Hayden said. 

The chances of far-right extreme groups coming together for another large event in Washington D.C. in the coming days is less likely because of the additional security measures in place since the Capitol attack, Hayden said, adding that leaders of some of the larger extremist groups have urged followers not to go to Washington D.C. 

“I’m not saying it’s impossible to generate a large crowd in Washington D.C. I’m just saying that there are huge obstacles that they did not face on January 6, and it’s missing that sort of galvanizing moment of the Trump rally,” Hayden said. 

Demonstrations at state capitols are far more likely to galvanize crowds, Hayden said. In his work monitoring extremists online he has seen the sharing of maps of state capitols, dotted with pinpoints where groups want people to go, he said. 

Some states have publicized bolstered security around their capitols, a sign that perhaps those state officials have more information about possible threats than SPLC has access to, Hayden said.

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Congress

SPLC responds to arrest of man carrying Confederate flag inside U.S. Capitol

Kevin Seefried and his son, Hunter, face multiple charges connected with their alleged part in the deadly Capitol riot.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Widely shared images of a white man carrying a Confederate flag across the floor of the U.S. Capitol during last week’s deadly attempted insurrection is a jarring reminder of the treasonous acts that killed more than 750,000 Americans during the Civil War, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. 

“Just as defeated Confederate soldiers were forced to surrender the Civil War and end their inhumane treatment of Black people, the rioter who brazenly carried a Confederate flag into the Capitol has been forced to surrender to federal authorities,” said Lecia Brooks, chief of staff at the Southern Poverty Law Center, in a statement Friday following the arrests of Kevin Seefried, 51, and his 23-year-old son Hunter.

Seefried, the Baltimore man allegedly seen in those photographs carrying the Confederate flag, and his son are charged with entering a restricted building and violent entry and disorderly conduct on Capitol grounds. Hunter is also charged with destroying government property.

“Incited by the President’s disinformation campaign, the rioter’s decision to brazenly roam the halls of Congress clinging to this painful symbol of white supremacy was a jarring display of boundless white privilege,” Brooks’s statement reads. “Despite the revisionist history promoted by enthusiasts, his disgraceful display is proof that the Confederate flag clearly represents hate, not heritage.”

Brooks added:

 “Over 750,000 American lives were lost because of the Confederacy’s treasonous acts. We cannot allow more blood to be shed for efforts to split our Union. January’s immoral coup attempt is an embarrassment to the United States, and we call on the federal government to prosecute these insurrectionists to the fullest extent of the law.”

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An affidavit detailing the charges states that videos taken during the riot show both Seefrieds enter the Capitol building through a broken window, that Hunter helped break, at about 2:13 p.m.

Both men on Jan. 12 voluntarily talked with FBI agents and admitted to their part in the riots, according to court records. 

The elder Seefreid told the FBI agent that he traveled to the rally to hear Trump speak and that he and his son joined the march and were “led by an individual with a bull horn.” 

There were numerous pro-Trump attendees at the rally and march to the Capitol who had bull horns, according to multiple videos taken that day, but at the front of one of the largest groups of marchers with a bull horn was far-right radio personality Alex Jones, who was walking next to Ali Alexander, organizer of the Stop the Steal movement. 

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Alexander in three separate videos has said he planned the rally, meant to put pressure on Congress voting inside the Capitol that day, with Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, and Arizona U.S. Reps. Paul Gosar and Andy Biggs. Alexander is now in hiding, according to The Daily Beast

Congressman Brooks’s spokesman told APR on Tuesday that Brooks does not remember communicating with Alexander. 

“Congressman Brooks has no recollection of ever communicating in any way with whoever Ali Alexander is. Congressman Brooks has not in any way, shape or form coordinated with Ali Alexander on the January 6th ‘Save America’ rally,” the statement from the congressman’s spokesman reads. 

Jones and Alexander can be seen leading the march in a video taken and posted to Twitter by freelance journalist Raven Geary. 

“This is history happening. We’re not giving into globalists. We’ll never surrender,” Jones yells into his bullhorn as they marched toward the Capitol. 

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Crime

Leeds man arrested, charged in connection with entering U.S. Capitol last week

Joshua Matthew Black of Leeds was arrested Wednesday in North Alabama.

Eddie Burkhalter

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Joshua Matthew Black of Leeds speaking in a YouTube video he uploaded explaining his actions on Jan. 6, 2020, during an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol that ended with at least five deaths. (VIA YOUTUBE)

An Alabama man was arrested Thursday and charged in connection with entering the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 during the violent riot that left at least five dead, including a Capitol Police officer. 

Joshua Matthew Black of Leeds was arrested Wednesday in North Alabama, according to a U.S. Department of Justice list of investigations connected to the Capitol attack. Black’s federal court records related to the case remained sealed on Thursday, according to the federal criminal database. 

Images of a man wearing a red hat and camouflage jacket on the Senate floor, which were shared widely on social media following the attack, was of Black, according to an affidavit written by an FBI agent, posted to the DOJ’s website. 

“On January 8, 2021, an individual using the username “LetUs Talk” posted two videos on YouTube,” the affidavit states. In the two videos, Black, wearing a Trump hat, said he planned to turn himself in to the FBI once he uploaded the videos, and described his version of what happened on Jan. 6. 

“Once we found out that Pence turned on us, and that they had stolen the election, like officially, the crowd went crazy. I mean, it became a mob. We crossed the gate,” Black said in the first video.

Black said he was shot by an officer with what he believes was a projectile, which went through his left cheek. Black said on the video that he attempted to help an officer who was alone and had been knocked down and was being beaten by other rioters when he was shot. 

“He was on the ground and there was boots coming down,” Black said, referring to the officer being beaten.  

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Black stopped discussing what happened for a moment to say he’d recently seen a video of Trump denouncing the rioters. 

“I just saw a video from Trump, that said we were heinous or something like that. I guess the hopes of getting a pardon are out the window,” Black said. 

“I actually had a knife on me but they never … I had too much clothes on, it was freezing out there, you know,” Black said. “I never, I wasn’t planning on pulling It. I just carry one because I do. I work outside. You need knives, you know. You’re not allowed to carry guns in D.C., and I don’t like being defenseless.” 

Black in the video said that once he got inside the Capitol he “found a little spot, and there was a glass door, and it said ‘US Senate’ on it.” 

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“I said I need to get in there. I just felt like the spirit of God wanted me to go in the Senate room, you know. So I was about to break the glass and I thought, no, this is our house, we don’t act like that. I was tempted to, I’m not gonna lie. Cause I’m pretty upset. You know? They stole my country,” Black said. 

“I just wanted to get into the inside of the building so I could plead the blood of Jesus over it,” Black said. 

Black said after leaving Washington D.C. he shaved his beard a bit to help disguise himself. 

“I’ve actually been wearing a mask, and not for COVID but for not going to jail,” Black said.  

“On January 7, 2021, an anonymous individual called the FBI and admitted that he broke into the Capitol and entered the Senate chamber with other individuals. The anonymous individual called from a telephone number associated with BLACK of Alabama,” the affidavit states. 

Black agreed to meet with an FBI special agent in Moody on Jan. 8, according to those records, and at the meeting said he’d recorded the videos detailing his experience. 

A caller to the FBI on Jan. 10 reported that Black was the man in the red hat seen in the photo standing in the Senate chamber, the court record states. 

Black is charged with entering a restricted building or grounds, and violent entry and disorderly conduct, according to the criminal complaint. Black does not appear to have a criminal record in the state of Alabama, according to a search of those records.

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Crime

Pardons and Paroles swears in 31 new probation and parole officers

This is the largest group of probation and parole officers sworn in by the bureau in years.

Brandon Moseley

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles on Tuesday announced that 31 probation and parole officers were sworn in by new Director Cam Ward. The addition of officers will help the bureau reach its goal of a reduced caseload. The bureau’s goal is one officer per 75 offenders, allowing officers to monitor offenders more closely and maximize rehabilitation efforts.

Ward was recently appointed director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles by Gov. Kay Ivey. This was Ward’s first swearing-in ceremony for the bureau.

“It is an honor to participate in this ceremony and witness the beginning of these officers’ careers,” Ward said.

This is the largest group of probation and parole officers sworn in by the bureau in years.

Ward said that with public safety at the forefront, he wants the bureau to stay focused on the reentry and rehabilitation for parolees and probationers. Probation and Parole Officers are one of the key factors in helping criminals become productive members of society.

The Special Populations Division at the bureau specializes in education, behavioral and treatment programs. It includes the Alabama Certain Enforcement Supervision Program, Day Reporting Centers, Day Reporting Center Lites and other programs. Mental health professionals are staffed to help with program success. The Interdisciplinary Grant Team, another part of Special Populations, coordinates the application and implementation of federal, state and local grants. This allows for the expansion of supervision and rehabilitation programs.

Ward announced that he plans to reopen the LIFE Tech Transitional Center. It was previously scheduled to close. LIFE Tech is a residential intensive reentry and rehabilitation program for male offenders.

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Since 2013, 2,344 offenders received access to opportunities through LIFE Tech.

Lowering the recidivism rate is a key component of trying to lower the prison population of the Alabama Department of Corrections, which has struggled with overcrowding issues for years. To find out more about Special Populations and other programs at ABPP, click here.

Ward replaced Judge Charlie Graddick who resigned recently. Ward previously had been a State Senator.

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