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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.”

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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.

“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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Senate pro tem requests general fund committee begin hearings in July

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Senate President Pro Tempore Del Marsh, R-Anniston, announced today that he has asked Senate Finance and Taxation General Fund Committee Chairman Greg Albritton, R-Range, to begin holding General Fund Committee meetings in preparation for the next session.

In an effort to be better prepared because of uncertainty in state revenue as a result of COVID-19 pandemic Senator Albritton has agreed with Senator Marsh and has invited Legislative Services, the Department of Finance, Pardons and Paroles, Corrections and the Personnel Department to provide updates to the committee.

“Typically, we begin this process closer to sessions however because of uncertainty about state income and possibility of special sessions, we felt like it was important to get started much earlier than usual in this process,” Senator Albritton said. “The Legislature has done an excellent job managing our budgets over the past few years. So much so that Alabama was able to weather the storm of the COVID-19 shutdown this year with little impact to our vital state services. We understand that we will not have final revenue projections until after July 15th, but we must continue to do our due diligence and ensure that we use taxpayer money sensibly.”

“We want to make sure that all public money is being used wisely, now and in the future,” Senator Marsh said. “We have many pressing issues facing the state such as a potential $2 billion-dollar prison reform proposal and a stunning lack of rural broadband investment which need to be addressed whenever the Legislature is back in session and it is our duty to make sure we are prepared and kept up to speed on these matters. Furthermore, the taxpayers deserve a clear and transparent view of how their money is being used.”

The hearings are scheduled to begin July 9 in the Alabama State House.

 

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Part-time employee in lieutenant governor’s office tests positive for COVID-19

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A part-time employee in Lieutenant Governor Will Ainsworth’s office, who the office said works only a handful of hours each week, tested positive for COVID-19 on Sunday, according to a press statement.

The employee, whose work area is separated from the rest of the staff, last worked in the office on the morning of Thursday, June 18.

All members of the office staff have been tested or are in the process of being tested for COVID-19 in response, and, thus far, no additional positive results have been reported.

In addition, the State House suite has been thoroughly cleaned and will remain closed until all employees’ test results have been returned.

Employees are working remotely from home, and phones are being answered in order to continue providing services to the citizens who need them.

 

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Three workers at ADOC headquarters among latest to test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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Sixteen more Alabama Department of Corrections employees, including three at the department’s headquarters in Montgomery, have tested positive for COVID-19. 

The department’s latest update, released Monday evening, puts the total of confirmed cases among employees at 99, with 73 cases still active. 

Five more inmates have tested positive for COVID-19 as well, including inmates at the Donaldson Correctional Facility, the Easterling Correctional Facility, the Kilby Correctional Facility, the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women and the St. Clair Correctional Facility.

18 of 27 confirmed cases among inmates remained active as of Monday, according to ADOC. 

Of the department’s 28 facilities, there have been confirmed COVID-19 cases among staff or inmates in 21. Of the state’s approximately 22,000 inmates, 214 had been tested as of Friday. 

Areas inside numerous state prisons are under quarantine, with ADOC staff either limiting inmate movements to those areas or checking for symptoms regularly and conducting twice daily temperature checks, according to the department.

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Still work to be done on an Alabama gambling deal

Josh Moon

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A grand deal on gambling is possible in Alabama, but there’s still a long way to go. 

That was essentially the message that representatives from the Poarch Creek Indians and owners of non-Indian casinos around the state gave Friday to Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Gambling Policy. The 12-member group heard presentations, via Zoom, from representatives from all the tracks and casinos in the state, as it continues in its quest to put together a proposal that Ivey and state lawmakers can use to hopefully craft future gambling legislation. 

To move forward with almost any legislation will require an agreement of some sort between PCI, Lewis Benefield, who operates VictoryLand and the Birmingham Race Course, and Nat Winn, the CEO of GreeneTrack. The owners of smaller electronic bingo halls in Greene and Lowndes Counties will also have some input. 

The tug of war between these various entities has, over the last several years, prevented an expansion of gambling. It also has left the state in a weird situation in which casinos are operating on a daily basis but there are numerous legal questions and the state is making very little in the way of tax dollars from any of them. 

But with public support for lotteries, sportsbooks and even full casino gambling at all-time highs (even a majority of Republican voters surveyed said they support full casinos in the state), and with neighboring states rapidly expanding offerings, state lawmakers seem ready to push through legislation to make it happen. 

And now, it seems, the two sides in this fight — PCI and the track owners — are ready to make a deal. 

“I feel like there’s a plan out there that would benefit all of us,” said Benefield, who is the son-in-law of Milton McGregor, who passed away in 2018. “I’d like to see us put together something that gets these customers back from surrounding states. I just really feel like we can work together.”

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Benefield wasn’t alone in those feelings. 

“We stand ready to sit down and talk (about a grand deal) with anyone,” said Arthur Mothershed, who, as vice president of business development for PCI, handled the tribe’s presentation on Friday. 

Mothershed and Benefield have each said previously, and APR has reported, that the tribe and the non-Indian entities have held several discussions over the last few months in a quest to work out a deal. 

There is a new, old player involved, however. 

Former Gov. Jim Folsom, now a lobbyist, represented several Greene County electronic bingo entities, including GreeneTrack, during the conference. Folsom and others representing the bingo casinos told the group that bingo is essentially the financial lifeblood for their county, and that without it multiple county services could go unfunded. 

Ivey’s study group has met four times with the goal of providing state lawmakers with clear answers on questions of revenue, risks and options for gaming types. Any legislation approved by lawmakers would have to be approved by voters.

 

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