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Prison reform, construction package expected before end of session

Chip Brownlee

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A wide-ranging package of bills aimed at prison reform is expected to drop in the Alabama Legislature in the next few weeks, the chairman of the Senate’s judiciary committee tells the Alabama Political Reporter.

The legislative package includes sentencing reforms, oversight legislation, reporting requirements and a new prison construction plan.

The package, when it is formally introduced, would come just weeks after the U.S. Department of Justice released a report in April excoriating the Alabama Department of Corrections for intense overcrowding, under-staffing and prison conditions so horrendous that they amount to a potential violation of the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment.

The report, nearly 60 pages long, found reasonable cause to believe that ADOC regularly failed to protect inmates from sexual and physical violence perpetrated by other inmates. The legislative package is intended to alleviate some of those issues and reduce the rate of violence and suicide in the state’s prisons.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

DOJ officials notified Alabama prison administrators in a letter that accompanied the report that it could sue by the state by May 21 if ADOC officials do not “satisfactorily address” the concerns raised in the report.

“I think you have a lot of people saying we can’t do this anymore,” said State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the chair of the judiciary committee. “The worst-case scenario is if we do nothing, then all you’re going to do, is eventually the federal government will just take over.”

Since the report dropped with a bang in April, Ward has been meeting with an informal bipartisan working group to come up with a plan to address the concerns raised in the report.

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“We feel like by the end of next week, we should have a pretty good plan in place — or a framework — to help address some of their concerns,” Ward said Friday.

The informal working group has been meeting with U.S. attorneys and other federal officials to discuss their plans. Ward said he is confident the prison reform package would address the Department of Justice’s concerns and waive off the threat of a lawsuit.

“Every memo they’ve sent back to us they’ve said they think our conversations have been very productive,” Ward said. “We’ve taken U.S. attorneys around to both causes in the House and Senate. We’ve had very frank conversations, questions and answers.”

The framework would include about five or six bills, Ward said.

Sentencing reform, Ward said, is among the top concerns. One of the bills in the package would address property crime sentencing and thresholds. Alabama has some of the lowest property crime thresholds in the country.

The proposal, Ward said, would raise the thresholds for a low-level, non-violent property crime offenses. Another would allow for existing sentences to be re-evaluated in light of reduced sentencing guidelines.

“If I was in prison in 2014 and you changed the sentencing laws in 2015, if I committed that same crime in 2016 and wouldn’t be in prison, shouldn’t you have some sort of look-back to re-evaluate some of those sentences for non-violent offenders?” Ward said.

 The changes would be in line with Gov. Kay Ivey’s call for an “Alabama solution to an Alabama problem.” Ivey has warned the state needs to do something before the federal government takes over the system.

Ward agreed.

“You don’t want to allow them the opportunity of mass release of inmates,” Ward said.

California faced something similar in 2011, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state’s overcrowded prisons amounted to cruel and unusual punishment. The court ordered the state to reduce its prison population to at least 137.5 percent of capacity within two years.

The ruling effectively required the state to release tens of thousands of inmates. Within 15 months, more than 27,500 inmates were moved from state prisons to county jails or to parole.

“They will just come over and run the system, and then, they just give you a bill that we have to pay for whatever they want to see done, and it’s expensive. You end up having to raise a lot of taxes for prisons,” Ward said.

Ward has been involved with reforming the state’s criminal justice and prison system for years, but he described the mood among lawmakers since the release of the DOJ report as a “sea change.”

“I think from a legislative standpoint, we have a lot of people saying we have to do something, which I think is positive,” Ward said. “That is what we need.”

It’s unlikely the package of bills would address drug sentencing.

“You can tweak that some, but the thing is that today, in Alabama prisons, there is nobody there because they were smoking marijuana,” Ward said. “It’s just not there.”

Ward said it was possible to reduce some sentences for low-level trafficking, but that would be difficult.

“If you legalize marijuana tomorrow in Alabama all the way through, it would impact the prison population zero,” Ward said. “So you’ve got a way to do something that actually addresses it.”

The rest of the package would take aim at providing more transparency and oversight for the state prison system.

“You have to say, we’re going to have regular meetings with oversight committee, and we’re going to hold you accountable on suicide rates,” Ward said. “Why is this happening? We’re going to hold you accountable on inmate-on-inmate violence, sexual assaults and we’ve got to have a better reporting system. That way we can address it.”

The DOJ’s wide-ranging investigation found not only that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breadth” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

“There was a culture inside those prisons where it was just OK to let that stuff happen,” Ward said. “So we have to crack down on that, too.”

The new plan comes as Ivey is going down her own path with the aim of consolidating the state’s 13 men’s prisons into just three new large prisons through a leasing agreement that wouldn’t require the Legislature’s approval. The plan is similar to proposals considered under former Gov. Robert Bentley. That proposal failed twice.

Ivey administration moves another step forward with prison plan

There aren’t many details about what the Legislature’s prison construction plan might include, but Ward said it could be more cost-effective because the Legislature could approve a bond issue instead of a leasing arrangement.

“There are those in the Legislature who are saying we would rather do it ourselves because if you do it through a standard bond issue as opposed to the lease proposal, you save about $200 million,” Ward said. “That’s why that conversation is going on.”

Ward carried Bentley’s prison construction plan the last time it was considered in the Legislature, and he said he was hesitant to get back into a conversation this session about a legislative plan to build new prisons.

“I was skeptical when it first came back among our members. I was very hesitant and very skeptical. I didn’t feel good about it,” Ward said. “Once we had the conversation, I kind of acquiesced to the majority of our members who want to take another stab at it.”

When the prison construction plan failed last time, it was largely due to disagreement among the Republican caucus about the cost of the $800 million plan and the method of bidding. But Ivey’s plan would cost at least $900 million.

“I’m working with a bipartisan coalition here, and if a majority of them want to go down that road, then I’m going to work with my body to make sure we do what the majority wants,” Ward said. “Now, is it going to happen? I don’t know. But if the will is there — and I see a lot of hard work from both Democrats and Republicans — then we’re going to try it.”

Ward said the bills will start moving within the next two weeks, and his goal is to have them considered before the end of the Legislative session, which could end in late May or early June.

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House

Alabama Legislature plans to return to work briefly March 31

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Senate is planning to get to only a few big, constitutionally mandated items before calling an end to the year’s legislative session amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but whether they’ll get those tasks accomplished remains to be seen. 

Senate leadership is advising lawmakers who fall into “at-risk” categories because of their age or pre-existing medical conditions to not attend the Senate’s meeting when it resumes.

Among the items legislators tentatively plan to tackle before gaveling the session closed sometime in the future are the passage of the Education Trust Fund budget and the General Fund budget, which is the Legislature’s only constitutionally mandated duty.

And “other bills deemed necessary.” 

The state Senate’s Plan of Action, obtained by APR Friday, states that the Senate will meet at 2 p.m. on March 31 for its 14th legislative day. 

“The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House,” the plan reads. 

The State Senate’s plan: 

“As leaders, it is imperative that we demonstrate that the business of this state carries on in an orderly and systematic fashion while adhering to the recommendations of our public health officials.

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The Alabama Senate will meet on Tuesday, March 31 at 2:00 pm at the Statehouse in the Senate Chamber as scheduled. This will be the 14th Legislative Day.

The intent for this legislative day is to advance only essential attendance items and then to adjourn to a date certain for the 15th Legislative Day. April 28 has been discussed with the House.

Below is a draft agenda for Tuesday, March 31.

  • Gavel In
  • Pledge and Prayer
  • Roll Call
  • Excuse all Senators
  • Points of Personal Privilege
  • President Pro Tem Marsh
  • Majority Leader Reed
  • Minority Leader Singleton
  • Adjourn to date certain for 15th Legislative Day.

“It is highly recommended that any Senator that falls into any of the at-risk categories stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day,” the plan advises. “However, each Senator’s personal wish will be accommodated.”

Any Senator or staff member that is ill, has been ill, or has been in the same room of anyone that has had any symptom of illness in the 72 hours preceding the March 31 Legislative Day must stay away from the March 31 Legislative Day, according to the Senate’s leadership.

A disinfecting station will be provided under the canopy of the second-floor rear entrance for each senator to disinfect hands and cell phones as they enter the State House and as they leave the Statehouse.

“We must ensure that we practice all Health Department recommendations while at the Statehouse,” the plan reads.

Social distancing will be accomplished by having senators report to their offices by 1:45 p.m. They will then walk into the chamber as the roll is called and then go back to their offices.

“As much separation as possible is required therefore greetings must be verbal only from a distance of 6 feet or greater,” the plan reads.

The remainder of the session will be held possibly Tuesday, April 28 through Monday, May 18.

This timeframe includes three weeks of the session plus the last day of May 18.

A specific plan for meeting more days than normal will be developed and provided prior to the next legislative meeting date.

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House

$200,000 in campaign finance penalties deposited into State General Fund

Staff

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Act 2015-495, which went into effect beginning with the 2018 Election Cycle, allows the Secretary of State’s Office to issue penalties to Political Action Committees (PACs) and Principal Campaign Committees (PCCs) that fail to timely file campaign finance reports.

As of today, the Office of the Secretary of State has collected $202,504.20 which has been deposited into the State General Fund to benefit the people of Alabama.

Conversations with the Senate and House General Fund Chairmen are currently underway to determine the best way to allocate these resources to counties.

Anyone who receives a campaign finance penalty is able to appeal their penalty to the Alabama Ethics Commission who has the authority to overturn a penalty.

“When I campaigned for this office in 2014, I made a promise to the people of Alabama that I would work to see that it is easy to vote and hard to cheat in this state. Since then, we have worked to make the electoral process more fair and transparent through requiring the honest reporting of all PACs and PCCs,” stated Secretary of State John H. Merrill.

Anyone who suspects an individual may be in violation of the Alabama Election Fairness Project is encouraged to report suspicious activity to StopVoterFraudNow.com.

 

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Economy

Daniels: We have to get help to those who need it most

Josh Moon

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There is not enough help coming fast enough to the people struggling the most. 

That was the message from Alabama House Minority Leader Anthony Daniels, who was asked on the “Alabama Politics This Week” podcast about the efforts of Alabama’s state government to address the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“If you’ve never been poor, you don’t fully comprehend how things like this affect the poor and the unique problems the poor people face,” Daniels said. “I commend Gov. (Kay) Ivey and her staff for working to try and address this crisis the best they can, but I just think there’s a lack of understanding among all of us in some cases of how people need help.” 

To address those issues, at least in part, Daniels is writing a series of letters to different entities, including Ivey, to explain how they can best help the state’s most vulnerable. 

Daniels plans to ask the Alabama Supreme Court to order lower courts to halt foreclosure proceedings and evictions for those affected by coronavirus job losses and illnesses. He also will ask Ivey to intervene with banks on behalf of customers who are falling hopelessly behind on mortgage, car loans and other installment loans. And he will seek additional assistance from the state for borrowers with overwhelming student loan debt. 

“I want people to understand that I’m not criticizing what’s being done or trying to take control, I just hear from these folks on a daily basis and believe there are some better ways to help people,” Daniels said. “President Trump has addressed student loan debt by knocking the interest of those loans, but what does that really do for a person who just lost a job? Or someone who’s had hours and pay cut? We need to pause those payments and give people substantial forgiveness. 

“Otherwise, it’s going to be ugly.”

Democrats in the House also have been putting together potential legislation that could be passed to help the state’s poorest citizens and those who have been laid off from jobs. The specifics of those pieces of legislation weren’t available, but Daniels said they would have the same focus — providing real help for those who need it most. 

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If those bills are anything like the measures taken during the last economic downturn, you can expect a relaxing of rules on social programs, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and unemployment assistance programs. 

One of the first moves could be overturning a measure passed during the last legislative session that cut the number of weeks of unemployment pay in the state from 26 to 14. State Sen. Arthur Orr sponsored that legislation, and critics argued at the time that a downturn, such as the one that occurred in 2008, could suddenly leave thousands in the state without jobs and job prospects. It passed anyway.

 

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House

Alabama House cancels March 25 committee meetings due to coronavirus

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The Alabama House of Representatives announced on Monday that committee meetings scheduled for Wednesday, March 25 will be cancelled due to the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.

The legislative day on March 26 has not technically been cancelled but the House is not expected to have a quorum for that day.

A “quorum” is the minimum number of House members that must be present at any meeting to make the proceedings of that meeting valid. If there are not enough members present, then the meeting cannot proceed and House rules state that the speaker of the House is allowed to set a new date for the meeting. 

The Legislature is currently on an annual spring break. The House and Senate are both expected to reconvene on March 31. According to the statement from the House, a joint decision will be made regarding the future legislative meeting days.

The full statement reads:

“The leadership of the Alabama House of Representatives has made several changes to the upcoming meeting calendar because of the coronavirus crisis in the state.

House committees that were scheduled to meet on Wednesday, March 25, 2020 have been cancelled.

The House is scheduled to meet on Thursday, March 26, 2020 at 9:30 a.m. but no quorum is expected that day.

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Under House Rule 5(b), if there’s no quorum to conduct business during a state of emergency declared by the governor, the speaker of the House is allowed to set the date and time of the next meeting day. 

Both the House and Senate will reconvene on Tuesday, March 31, 2020 and at that time a joint decision will be made as to future legislative meeting days.”

 

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