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Prison reform, construction package expected before end of session

Chip Brownlee | The Trace

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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.”

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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.

“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.

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“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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Alabama Legislative Black Caucus holds meetings on racism in wake of George Floyd death

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, is the chair of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus.

Members of the Alabama Legislative Black Caucus in recent months have been meeting with Gov. Kay Ivey, state law enforcement officials and others to voice their concern over systemic racism in Alabama, the group said in a statement Friday. 

Alabama Legislative Black Caucus members in June met with Ivey, and in follow-up meetings with other state officials and leaders of higher education, members discussed what they believe needs changing to battle racism in Alabama, according to the press release. 

“We are very appreciative of Governor Ivey and all of the officials with whom we have met thus far,” said State Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, chairwoman of the ALBC, in a statement. “Our dialogues have been very substantive and productive as the Caucus presented our concerns and recommendations. Our goal is to get to the root of and eradicate racism and anything that communicates hatred, bigotry or divisiveness within the State of Alabama. The tragic and senseless death of George Floyd caused us all to take a closer look at the systemic racism at work here in Alabama.”

ALBC members met with officials from Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, the Alabama Sheriffs Association, the Alabama Association of Police Chiefs and Katie Britt, president and CEO of the Business Council of Alabama along with BCA’s Executive Leadership Committee.

Members also met with The University of Alabama System Chancellor Finis St. John, and Jay Gogue, president of Auburn University. 

In the statement, ALBC members applauded the University of Alabama’s Board of Trustees for voting unanimously to rename Nott Hall — named for Josiah Nott, a doctor who believed in white superiority — Honors Hall. 

“The University of Alabama had already started this endeavor before our meeting with them this past Tuesday,” said State Rep. A.J. McCampbell, D-Gallion, vice chairman of ALBC, in a statement. “That was a great first step and strong leadership was shown. We are looking forward to the other institutions of higher learning in Alabama to do the same as well. The Caucus also hopes that all members of the Alabama Legislature have been inspired to adopt and make meaningful changes in legislation that governs our state.”

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Figures said the group of elected senators and representatives are holding these talks, with plans for others, “so that people will stop focusing on Alabama’s sordid past, and instead see a beautiful Alabama present, and the makings of a bright future for all Alabamians.” 

“During each of these meetings, our members have had the opportunity to voice what we feel the necessary changes should be. I just hope this openness to positive change continues throughout the upcoming 2021 Alabama Legislative Session,” said State Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, in a statement. 

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State senator calls for Rep. Dismukes to resign over celebration of former Klan leader

“Since first being elected in 1996, I’ve had a policy of not publicly criticizing other elected officials, but at this time I am making an exception since Rep. Dismukes is MY state representative,” Chambliss wrote in a tweet. “He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people in District 88.” 

Eddie Burkhalter

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State Sen Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, on Monday called for the resignation of Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville.

State Sen Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, on Monday called for the resignation of Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, after posting to social media about attending a birthday celebration for Nathanial Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

Dismukes posted a photo of himself on Sunday speaking at Fort Dixie outside of Selma on Saturday, the same day that late Congressman and Civil Rights hero Rep. John Lewis, was honored in Selma. 

“Since first being elected in 1996, I’ve had a policy of not publicly criticizing other elected officials, but at this time I am making an exception since Rep. Dismukes is MY state representative,” Chambliss wrote in a tweet. “He does not represent my views or the views of the vast majority of people in District 88.” 

“The post is bad enough, the timing is even worse, but the real problem is that an elected official in 2020 would attend a celebration of the life of someone that led a group that terrorized and killed other human beings,” Chambliss continued in the tweet. “He has had 24 hours to understand why people are so upset, but his interview on WSFA a few moments ago confirms that he is lacking in understanding and judgment — he should resign immediately.” 

Dismukes in the WSFA interview told a reporter that he hadn’t thought about the memorial for Rep. Lewis and connected it to his attendance at the celebration for the Klan leader. 

Dismukes told WSFA that he won’t apologize for his family’s service in the “war between the states” that he said wasn’t primarily fought over slavery, that he’s not a racist but that he doesn’t see the need for the current racial reconciliation. 

“We no longer drink from separate water fountains, and we no longer have segregated schools,” Dismukes told WSFA. “You know there’s abundant work opportunities for all colors, there’s abundant scholarship opportunities for all colors. So what are you asking that needs to be racially reconciled?”

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Chambliss may be the first Republican lawmaker in Alabama to call for Dismukes’ resignation, but others have expressed concern over his social media post and attendance at the event. 

Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan issued a statement addressing the post, and said he believes voters should decide whether Dismukes keeps his office. 

“While Rep. Dismukes has released a statement attempting to clarify his actions as a private citizen attending a celebration of the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, Alabamians hold their elected officials to a high standard of actions. So does the Republican Party,” Lathan said in the statement. 

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“Rep. Dismukes offered no explanation for why he participated in a birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Additionally, I find his statement to be shallow in understanding why his activities are deeply offensive to so many Alabamians. His constituents will be the final decision-makers of his political future.”

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Republicans are concerned by Rep. Dismukes’ Confederate social media posts

Brandon Moseley

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Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, is facing criticism for attending a birthday celebration for the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, on Monday released a statement in response to a recent social media post by State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, who was in Selma Saturday celebrating Confederate General and Ku Klux Klan leader Gen. Nathan Bedford Forest’s birthday over the weekend. This was while much of the rest of the state was celebrating the life of Alabama native and Civil Rights Movement legend Congressman John Lewis.

“The Alabama Republican Caucus is comprised of 75 men and women, each of whom have their own beliefs and principles that guide their lives,” Ledbetter said. “The personal beliefs expressed by any one member do not reflect the beliefs of the others, and their activities outside the Legislature should be considered their own, as well.”

“Several of our Republican Caucus members have reached out to me with concerns about the content and timing of a recent social media post by State Rep. Will Dismukes, and I, as a House member, share those concerns,” Ledbetter continued. “We live in a nation that guarantees each citizen the right to express the ideas they wish to share, and in the case of a public official, voters will ultimately decide if they agree with those ideas.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, also released a statement regarding the controversial social media post.

“The Alabama House cannot police the beliefs, statements, and activities of its members outside the Legislature as that is a job best assigned to voters in each House district across the state,” McCutcheon said. “It is important to note, however, that I and many other members of the House devoted our weekend toward honoring an Alabama native and civil rights icon who dedicated his life to securing freedom, liberty, and equality for all Americans.”

“While Rep. Dismukes has released a statement attempting to clarify his actions as a private citizen attending a celebration of the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, Alabamians hold their elected officials to a high standard of actions. So does the Republican Party,” said Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan. “Rep. Dismukes offered no explanation for why he participated in a birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Additionally, I find his statement to be shallow in understanding why his activities are deeply offensive to so many Alabamians. His constituents will be the final decision-makers of his political future.”

“The Alabama of today was on full, honorable display as we paid humble tribute this weekend to the life of Congressman John Lewis,” Lathan continued. “That is the Alabama that we are proud of — showing the nation and world that we are one in the common goals of equality for all of our citizens.”

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“It is one thing to honor one’s Southern heritage, however, it is completely another issue to specifically commemorate the leader of an organization with an indisputable history of unconscionable actions and atrocities toward African-Americans,” Lathan concluded. “I strongly urge his constituents to contact Rep. Dismukes to articulate and share with him their thoughts on his personal actions.”

On Sunday, Dismukes shared several pictures from the celebration of Gen. Forest’s birthday, with the caption: “Had a great time at Fort Dixie speaking and giving the invocation for Nathan Bedford Forrest annual birthday celebration. Always a great time and some sure enough good eating!!”

After the comments became a social media firestorm that has garnered press attention, Dismukes attempted to explain his position.

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“First and foremost, my post yesterday was in no way related to disrespecting the passing of Rep. John Lewis,” Dismukes said. “That wasn’t even a thought in my mind. That is not who I am as a person. I am a transparent person. To the point that as a public official I lay it all there for the people to see for better or for worse at times. My post yesterday was as usual me sharing a previous days events. The post was in no way intended to seem as if I was glorifying the Klan or any party thereof. The very atrocities and actions they committed are a disgrace to our country.”

“Also, we are all individual members that make up our legislature. I made a post independent of my colleagues,” Dismukes continued. “I made a post independent of my colleagues. My regret is that I have allowed them to be put in a negative light. If you disagree with me and my beliefs do not hold them under the same umbrella. I can live with a dislike for me, but not fellow members, or members of my own personal family. Our body as a whole is made up of some of the finest people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with, both Democrat and Republican. I close by reiterating that my post was in no way glorifying the Klan or disrespecting the late Rep. John Lewis.”

The Alabama Democratic Party had already come out and demanded that Dismukes resign months ago when it became known that he, a minister, was chaplain for a Sons of the Confederacy chapter in central Alabama.

Dismukes is serving in his first term in the Alabama House. He briefly was a congressional candidate in Alabama’s 2nd District but dropped out of the race before the Republican Primary.

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Alabama lawmaker faces sharp criticism over celebration of former KKK leader

Micah Danney

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State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, shared a post on Facebook after a birthday celebration for Nathan Bedford Forrest, the first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

State Rep. Will Dismukes, R-Prattville, is again facing calls to resign over a social media post he made about his participation in an event honoring Confederate heritage.

Dismukes posted a photo of himself on Sunday speaking at Fort Dixie the day before, where a yearly event was held celebrating the birthday of Nathan Bedford Forrest, a Confederate general and first Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan.

“Had a great time at Fort Dixie speaking and giving the invocation for Nathan Bedford Forrest annual birthday celebration. Always a great time and some sure enough good eating!!” Dismukes wrote above a photo of himself speaking on a porch adorned with a portrait of Forrest and several Confederate flags. The post is no longer visible.

Criticism was swift on social media as word spread that Dismukes attended the celebration on the same weekend that the late Congressman and Civil Rights hero, Rep. John Lewis, was honored in Selma, where Lewis was nearly beaten to death in 1965, during the march for voting rights that crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Alabama Democratic Party Executive Director Wade Perry called for Dismukes to resign.

“Will Dismukes has demonstrated yet again why he is unfit to hold public office,” Perry said in a statement. “Americans don’t celebrate racists or traitors. Nathan Bedford Forrest was both. And a founder of the Klan. The Alabama Democratic Party renews our call for Dismukes to resign. It’s 2020 and it’s time for racial extremists like Will Dismukes to go away.”

Dismukes posted a statement on Monday addressing the criticism: “First and foremost, my post yesterday was in no way related to disrespecting the passing of Rep. John Lewis. That wasn’t even a thought in my mind. That is not who I am as a person.

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“I am a transparent person. To the point that as a public official I lay it all there for the people to see for better or for worse at times. My post yesterday was as usual me sharing a previous days events. The post was in no way intended to seem as if I was glorifying the Klan or any party thereof. The very atrocities and actions they committed are a disgrace to our country.

“Also, we are all individual members that make up our legislature. I made a post independent of my colleagues. My regret is that I have allowed them to be put in a negative light. If you disagree with me and my beliefs do not hold them under the same umbrella. I can live with a dislike for me, but not fellow members, or members of my own personal family. Our body as a whole is made up of some of the finest people I have ever had the honor of knowing and working with, both Democrat and Republican.

“I close by reiterating that my post was in no way glorifying the Klan or disrespecting the late Rep. John Lewis.”

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Alabama Republican Party Chairman Terry Lathan issued a statement addressing the post:

“While Rep. Dismukes has released a statement attempting to clarify his actions as a private citizen attending a celebration of the first Grand Wizard of the Klu Klux Klan, Alabamians hold their elected officials to a high standard of actions. So does the Republican Party.

“Rep. Dismukes offered no explanation for why he participated in a birthday celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest. Additionally, I find his statement to be shallow in understanding why his activities are deeply offensive to so many Alabamians. His constituents will be the final decision-makers of his political future.

“The Alabama of today was on full, honorable display as we paid humble tribute this weekend to the life of Congressman John Lewis. That is the Alabama that we are proud of – showing the nation and world that we are one in the common goals of equality for all of our citizens.

“It is one thing to honor one’s Southern heritage, however, it is completely another issue to specifically commemorate the leader of an organization with an indisputable history of unconscionable actions and atrocities toward African-Americans. I strongly urge his constituents to contact Rep. Dismukes to articulate and share with him their thoughts on his personal actions.”

House Majority Leader Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, issued a statement saying that the beliefs of one member don’t reflect the beliefs of all, and that several Republican Caucus members expressed concern to him about the content and timing of Dismukes’ post.

We live in a nation that guarantees each citizen the right to express the ideas they wish to share, and in the case of a public official, voters will ultimately decide if they agree with those ideas.”

Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, on Monday issued his own statement:

“The Alabama House cannot police the beliefs, statements, and activities of its members outside the Legislature as that is a job best assigned to voters in each House district across the state.  

“It is important to note, however, that I and many other members of the House devoted our weekend toward honoring an Alabama native and civil rights icon who dedicated his life to securing freedom, liberty, and equality for all Americans.”

Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, tweeted a stern rebuke on Sunday: “I cannot fathom why anyone in 2020 celebrates the birthday of the 1st KKK Grand Wizard. And while the body of a civil rights icon beaten by the Klan lies at state Capitol being honored by GOP/Dem leaders from all over the state. This mentality does not rep my party or my faith.”

Another GOP colleague, Rep. Allen Farley, R-McCalla, responded to a constituent about the matter in a tweet

“Scott, As a Christian, Conservative, member of the Republican Party, I was proud of the comments of my colleague Rep. Danny Garrett. Rep Will Dismukes’ actions were also unfathomable to me. I believe it will take the voters in House Dist. 88 to remove Rep. Dismukes from office,” Farley said.

While fellow Republican officials said that Dismukes’ constituents should decide if he remains in office, the College Republican Federation of Alabama issued a statement on Monday calling for him to resign.

“Representative Dismukes’s Facebook post of him at an event that celebrated former KKK Grand Wizard Nathan Bedford Forrest is unacceptable and has no place in the State Legislature or the Republican Party,” the statement said.

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