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AG supports bill to reform pardons and paroles board

Chip Brownlee

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Attorney General Steve Marshall is supporting legislation intended to reform the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The legislation, proposed by the attorney general’s office, is sponsored by Republican Sen. Cam Ward and Republican State Rep. Connie Rowe.

The bill comes after months of controversy surrounding the parole board and its release practices.

In October, Marshall and Gov. Kay Ivey met with the parole board after prosecutors and victims’ advocates said the board considered granting too many offenders early parole.

In January 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, a violent offender sentenced to life imprisonment, was released from prison after “being recklessly and wrongfully paroled” by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, Marshall said.

He would be charged with another violent offense in July 2018.

“Months later, Spencer brutally murdered two women and a seven-year-old boy in their homes,” Marshall said. “This tragic failure of our justice system should have never happened—and cannot ever be allowed to happen again.”

Ward and Rowe’s bill would change the process by which the governor appoints board members, and it would be made more in line with the governor’s standing appointment authority for other boards. A Senate confirmation would be required.

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The legislation also creates the position of director of pardons and paroles, who would serve as the agency head, while the board would retain its independent judicial function of granting or denying parole and issuing pardons.

The board’s three members currently appoint the director, but this bill would change that so the governor would appoint the board’s leader.

The board’s existing policies on parole consideration dates would be codified in law, and the measure strengthens the board’s duty to provide notice to victims affected by the potential pardonee or parolee’s release.

Offenders convicted of certain violent crimes would not be eligible for parole consideration until they serve at least 85 percent of their sentence or 15 years, whichever is less.

That restriction includes the crimes of murder, attempted murder, first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree sodomy, sexual torture, first-degree robbery with serious physical injury, first-degree burglary with serious injury and first-degree arson with serious injury.

” These changes are designed to increase accountability, set clear parameters, and make certain that no prisoner who is a threat to public safety can slip through the cracks,” Marshall said.

In October 2018, Ivey and Marshall met with the three members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles after the board scheduled early parole hearings for 150 violent offenders including dozens of convicted murderers.

She signed Executive Order 716, which imposed a temporary moratorium on early parole hearings and required the submission and implementation of a corrective action plan by the Board of Pardons and Paroles.

The corrective action plan implemented the 85 percent of sentence rule, and the board decided it would no longer consider early parole for inmates convicted of Class A felonies involving serious physical injury to a victim.

“Governor Ivey and I have worked hand in hand to prepare a comprehensive proposal that prioritizes public safety within Alabama’s parole system,” Marshall said. “Over the course of the last two months, we have had numerous conversations and have exchanged written correspondence with the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles related to the Board’s proposed corrective action plan.””

Marshall said the “changes to the law are critical to ensuring public safety.

“Alabama crime victims and their families have let it be known that accountability must be restored to the Pardons and Paroles Board in order to protect the public,” he said. “This legislation will help accomplish this goal and I look forward to its swift passage this session.”

 

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Health

More than 200 people hospitalized with confirmed, suspected COVID-19

Chip Brownlee

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More than 200 people are hospitalized in Alabama with either a lab-confirmed case of the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, or a case the hospital suspects to be the virus but testing has not yet confirmed.

At least 120 people with lab-confirmed cases of the virus — about 12 percent of the state’s 1,000 confirmed cases, as of Wednesday morning — were hospitalized in ten of the state’s largest hospitals at the beginning of this week. The number is likely higher statewide.

The Alabama Department of Public Health has so far not provided regular updates on the number of hospitalizations in the state, but State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris has said about 8 percent of confirmed cases are hospitalized. Hospitals are reporting their hospitalization numbers to the state using the Alabama Incident Management System.

These ten hospitals who responded, which represent about a third of the state’s hospital bed capacity, provided basic hospitalization numbers to APR over the past two days.

More than 200 people were hospitalized in these hospitals when those with suspected cases of the virus are included. From the ten hospitals that provided numbers, more than 85 people are hospitalized with a suspected case of the virus. The number is likely much higher because not all of the ten hospitals shared how many suspected cases they are treating.

If the number of patients who are awaiting test results for unknown respiratory illnesses is included, the number is even higher — more than 300. It’s likely hospitals are treating these patients as if they have COVID-19, out of an abundance of caution.

Not all of the suspected cases will turn out to be COVID-19, but over the last week, hospitals have seen many of their suspected cases turn into confirmed cases after receiving lab test results. Lab results from the state’s lab are taking more than four days, on average, several of the hospitals said.

The state’s largest hospital, UAB in Birmingham, actually saw its inpatient confirmed cases decline since Thursday, March 26. A hospital spokesperson said 52 people were hospitalized with a confirmed case of the virus as of Tuesday at 11 a.m., down from a high of 62 on March 26.

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Other hospitals are seeing their cases surge. East Alabama Medical Center in Opelika has seen its COVID-19 patient load more than double since last week. The hospital, as of Monday, was treating 20 people with a confirmed case of the virus and 31 more with a suspected case. At least seven people have died at EAMC since Friday.

Southeast Medical Center in Dothan is also seeing higher numbers of COVID-19 cases. It is treating 14 inpatient confirmed cases — up from four last week —  and 24 more inpatients are awaiting test results. It’s possible that some of these patients are not from Alabama.

These numbers are delayed and shouldn’t be misconstrued as totally reflective of what hospitals are handling right now. The number of people hospitalized for COVID-19 is likely to be much higher than we are able to report, because of testing result delays, other problems with data reporting and hospitals we weren’t able to gather data from.

Our data is limited because it only includes some of the state’s largest hospitals, and not all hospitals provided the same type of data to us. Some did not respond to our requests for information. But these estimates do show that the number of people hospitalized with COVID-19 in Alabama is higher than the percentage reported by the Department of Public Health.

The Alabama Department of Public Health is releasing more limited data than neighboring states. The Georgia Department of Public Health regularly releases hospitalization numbers and detailed demographic data on those who have died.

In that state, at least 885 people — about 21.5 percent of its confirmed cases — are hospitalized. Georgia also releases the number of negative test results from commercial labs. In Alabama, it’s hard to tell how many people have been tested because commercial labs are not required to report their negative tests.

Louisiana, which is in the midst of a crisis, also releases hospitalization numbers, negative test results, and specific data on how many people are intubated on ventilators. In that state, 1,355 people are hospitalized with the virus, and 5,237 people have tested positive. 239 people have died. More than 38,000 people have been tested in Louisiana for the virus.

In Alabama, the Department of Public Health says 7,774 people have been tested. At least a thousand have tested positive. Twenty-four people have died.

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Guest Columnists

Opinion | A little effort can make a big difference in the fight against COVID-19

Will Ainsworth

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Will Ainsworth is Alabama’s lieutenant governor.

Every American was a bit disappointed when the White House announced this week that social distancing guidelines will remain in place at least until April 30, and some governors across the nation have mandated that statewide shelter-in-place orders may be enforced until the end of June.

Working from home, avoiding contact with others, and venturing into public only when absolutely necessary can make life seem much like the Bill Murray movie, “Groundhog Day.” Each day, the temptation to break a social distancing guideline becomes a little harder to resist and the desire to ignore protocols and immediately return to your normal routine becomes that much greater.

But facts, statistics, and simple, everyday hard truths demand that we not only hold the course in the fight against COVID-19, but also practice stricter self-discipline in how we act and what we do.

As this column is being written, Alabama is teetering on the edge of its 1,000th documented case of Coronavirus, and 19 of our fellow Alabama citizens have already succumbed to the deadly sickness.

Every indicator points to the situation getting significantly worse in our state before it begins to improve, and President Trump has ordered additional ventilators sent to Alabama from the national stockpile in order to prepare for what awaits us.

If current trends continue, Alabama’s healthcare resources will likely be pushed beyond capacity by the end of the month, and the number of hospital and ICU beds that are needed will exceed the total number we have in the state.

The good news is that Alabamians can prove all of these projections and possible doomsday scenarios wrong if we just use common sense, take self-responsibility, and follow the rules that health professionals suggest.

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Too many among us are still refusing to take the COVID-19 crisis seriously, and by doing that, they threaten their own lives along with the lives of everyone they love and everyone they meet.

Since Gov. Kay Ivey declared the state’s Gulf Coast beaches closed in order to enforce social distancing, the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency has reported a dramatic surge in weekend traffic on Alabama’s lakes and rivers.

My family and I live by Lake Guntersville, and we have noticed the massive groups of people congregating together, jumping from party boat to party boat, and ignoring every rule about social distancing and self-isolation that the Center for Disease Control has asked us to follow.

It may come as a surprise to these weekend revelers, but sun, water, and cold beer are not effective vaccines against COVID-19.

For proof of this fact, just look toward the group of University of Wisconsin-Madison students who spent their Spring Break in Gulf Shores in mid-March. Upon their return north, several of the students have displayed symptoms and tested positive for COVID-19, and all of them are currently under quarantine.

Each time an individual or family decides to strictly follow CDC guidelines and do their part in the fight against Coronavirus, the numbers bend in our direction, and all of us get that much closer to safely resuming normalcy.

Assuming Alabama has a daily infection rate of 20 percent, trends show that we can expect to have more than 245,000 total cases of COVID-19 by May 1, but if through discipline and resolve we can reduce that daily growth to 10 percent, a little more than 9,000 cases will occur. At five percent growth, we have only 1,600.

via Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth

In other words, just a little effort and diligence from all of us can make a tremendous difference. Social distancing is recommended because the virus that causes COVID-19 can travel at least three feet when coughed or sneezed, and it can live on surfaces for days.

The rules for social distancing are easy to understand and follow, and they require you to remain at least six feet away from others, wash your hands frequently with soap, sanitize and wipe down surfaces, stay at home to stop the spread, and self-quarantine and contact your physician if you experience symptoms.

President Trump was wise to extend the social distancing requirements for at least another month, but all of us look forward to the day when future extensions will not be necessary. To accomplish that goal, we must each remember three simple things – stay smart, stay healthy, and, most importantly, stay home.

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Legislature

Alabama Legislature meets under heightened health concerns

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday gaveled in for what was supposed to be their first day back from a two-week spring break—well rested and ready to tackle the state’s pressing issues.

Instead, like everything else in American society, it was a somber event overshadowed by concerns about the coronavirus, which has killed approximately two dozen Alabamians in just the last few days.

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, thanked all the members present for attending under the circumstances.

The House called just enough legislators to have a quorum. A bipartisan group of 53 of the 105 Representatives was present in the House Chamber to gavel in for the short session.

Others were in their cars in the parking lot if needed. The leadership had asked that anybody who felt sick at all not to attend. They also directed more vulnerable members to not attend. Despite this, Reps. Steve McMillan, R-Gulf Shores, age 78; Joe Faust, R-Fairhope, age 79; and Laura Hall, D-Huntsville, age 77, were among other older representatives who braved the risks and were in the chamber anyway.

Members of the legislature all had their temperatures checked as they entered the building to make sure that none of them had a fever. While a cough and a fever are strong indications of COVID-19, about a fifth of people infected with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic.

They can still spread the virus to others despite feeling fine. At least six members were wearing surgical masks and several were wearing gloves. One Republican member wore a face scarf wrapped around her head covering everything but her eyes.

If there had not been a quorum present for a scheduled legislative day that would have, by rule, ended the 2020 legislative session. Their attendance in Montgomery, despite the clear and present danger of the coronavirus, saved the session.

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While there, they passed a Joint Senate Resolution changing the legislative rules so that during a state of emergency, as we have now, if on a scheduled legislative day they are unable to reach a quorum, then the leadership can set a new legislative day without losing one of their thirty legislative days.

The House set its next legislative day for April 28.

They saved the 2020 legislative session, but it may still be a hollow victory.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked McCutcheon if they are able to come back and have legislative meetings, will there still be committee meetings or will that be done by e-meetings online, and if so will there be a way for the press to participate in those online discussions?

“If we come back to conduct legislative business, there will be committee meetings and we would have no reason to keep the press out,” McCutcheon said.

But McCutcheon said that they will not come back if doing so will risk the members or their health and the other people in the building.

McCutcheon himself is in his mid-60s and has suffered from a heart condition. Pre-existing conditions like cardio-vascular disease greatly increases the likelihood of death with COVID-19.

The Alabama Political Reporter asked, given what we think is coming, is there any discussion about passing legislation so that the Alabama Department of Corrections can release its oldest and most vulnerable inmates so they can get healthcare from Medicare or Medicaid rather than from the prisons health system?

“There have been no discussions about that,” McCutcheon said.

State Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, told reporters that the Legislature would pass “two bare-bones budgets.”

McCutcheon agreed with that but cautioned, “We want to see what kind of federal money is coming down.”

McCutcheon said that when the Legislature comes back, they will prioritize supplemental appropriations bills, the budgets, the education budget and members’ local bills. They would also prioritize economic growth bills. Priority will be given to bills that have already passed the House or the Senate.

“We will look at the time we have available,” McCutcheon said.

APR asked: Given what we think is coming we are going to need every nurse that we can get. Is there plans to work with the nursing schools and colleges to ramp up the training of the nursing students we already have in the pipeline to get them trained and out on the front lines?

McCutcheon said that there has been no discussion about changing the curriculum or the course of study for nurses, but “I do know that when we look at workforce development, we have recognized that there is a nursing shortage. They are looking at ways to increase that number.”

Associated Press reporter Kim Chandler asked if the Legislature would look at increasing the length of time that an unemployed person can receive unemployment compensation.

“I am not against looking at that,” McCutcheon said.

McCutcheon said that under the circumstances that, “We may have to look at ways to reassess the timeline,” on building new prisons but warned that the state will have to speak to the Department of Justice.

Passing sentencing reform and efforts to reduce recidivism “will depend on how much time we have left,” he said.

McCutcheon said that there is a possibility that the Governor will have to call a special session over the summer and if they had not met on Tuesday then there would have been a special session.

“The members are concerned about their districts,” McCutcheon said. “The governor is now having weekly conference calls with legislators.”

McCutcheon said that the leadership will be monitoring the situation and, “We may be in a position where we can not” go back into session.

The Alabama Senate had a similar meeting on Tuesday to change the rules and set April 28 as their next meeting day.

The Alabama Legislature must constitutionally pass the two budgets and conclude their legislative business by May 18.

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Economy

Department of Labor closed Birmingham unemployment office as COVID-19 spread

Eddie Burkhalter

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The number of people applying for unemployment in Alabama continues to skyrocket amid the COVID-19 outbreak, but there are fewer people handling those claims this month than last. 

The Alabama Department of Labor closed an office in Birmingham and let some workers go earlier this month. That staffing shortage, coupled with an onslaught of new claims, has slowed the time it’s taking to process them, one worker told APR

Approximately 74,056 people filed unemployment claims during the week that ended  March 28, according to the department’s preliminary data. That was far more than had ever been filed for any week going back to 1987, when the U.S. Department of Labor began keeping data on weekly unemployment claims. 

“Where we would have alerted a claimant that it would take two to three weeks, now the verbiage is, as soon as administratively possible,” the employee at the department told APR by phone Saturday. The person asked not to be identified as they’re still employed with the state. 

It’s currently taking between six and seven weeks to process claims, the worker said, and people who have applied are expressing concern over the long wait. 

“It’s an issue,” the worker said. 

The employee said workers at the now-closed Birmingham office were called into a meeting on Feb. 18 and told the office would close for good on March 13. Anyone who wanted to continue working for the department had to report to the Montgomery office on March 16, the worker said, or they would be “considered to have quit.” 

In a response to APR’s questions, Alabama Department of Labor spokeswoman Tara Hutchison wrote that “Eleven employees found other positions in a career center or tax office, three employees resigned in lieu of transferring, two are retiring, and six conditional employees were separated.”

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There was no discussion in that Feb. 18 meeting of the novel coronavirus or the possibility of mass filings, the workers said. There was discussion of what might happen if another recession hit, the person said, but administrators didn’t have a plan for that. 

China informed the World Health Organization about the novel coronavirus on Dec. 31. President Donald Trump on Jan. 31 banned foreign nationals entry into the country if they had traveled to China within the last two weeks. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention there were 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. as of Feb. 18, the day workers were told the Birmingham office would be closing. 

A day after the Feb. 18 meeting at the Birmingham office Iran’s COVID-19 breakout began. 

By March 8, eight days before workers were ordered to show up to the Montgomery office, Italy ordered a lockdown of 60 million residents. Three days later the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. 

By March 13, the day the Birmingham office closed, there were 2,611 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the U.S. 

The worker said just 15 of the 37 employees made the move to the Montgomery office, and those who did are faced with an overwhelming workload and are spending hours each day doing jobs that others had done before the move. All but one of the 15 adjudicate claims, the person said, meaning they process them and determine whether the person should receive unemployment benefits. 

Hutchison told APR that the decision to close the Birmingham office was made because of funding and budget issues. 

“The Unemployment Insurance program’s budget has been cut repeatedly for several years.  The building’s rental and overhead costs were eliminated by transferring those employees to the Montgomery Call Center,” Hutchison said in the message. 

The worker questioned, however, why the department waited until a month before the planned closure to inform the staff, and expressed concern that there 

“As you know, we are taking in remarkable numbers of new claims due to COVID-19.  There was no way to know at the time that this situation would occur. We are working constantly to improve service, and one of those ways is by reutilizing those employees who transferred to other positions, and having them accept claims,” Hutchison said. “We are also looking to bring back those conditional employees who have separated, if they haven’t found other work.  Additionally, the federal government is providing increased funding to assist with staffing issues.”

The Birmingham office was already short-staffed enough to have been allowing staff there overtime pay to handle existing claims, the employee said. 

“This just added just a whole new level,” the person said. 

The workers said staff at the department want the public to know that they care and are working hard to get claims processed as quickly as possible. 

“We want to make sure that we’re doing the job right. We want to make sure that we’re following guidelines that we’ve had in place all throughout our employment with how to do these claims,” the person said. “If the public knew that, that would be great.”

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