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House passes bill to reform Pardons and Paroles Board

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to reform the much-maligned Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

House Bill 380 is sponsored by State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper. Rowe is a retired police chief.

The bill creates a director of pardons and paroles who is appointed by the governor and codifies the rules that the board is supposed to use when considering pardons and paroles.

Rowe said that Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was sentenced to life in prison, got out in January 2018. He was out for six months, went to Guntersville and murdered three people including a 7-year-old boy.

Rowe said there were rules in place that would have kept a violent offender like Spencer from getting out until 85 percent of his sentence. The current board ignored those rules.

State Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said the bill gives the governor and the attorney general too much authority.

“The role of pardons and paroles is public safety,” Rowe said. “This makes the task of the Pardons and Paroles Board more clear.”

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“We are changing the structure of the Pardons and Paroles Board,” said State Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Abbeville.

“This codifies those rules that are too often ignored by the board,” Rowe said.

“I wish that the appointees must have some knowledge of the operations of the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Grimsley said.

“If he (Spencer) had looked like me, they would never have let him out,” said State Rep. Thomas Jackson.

“This bill will not solve the problem because every time someone gets out of prison, we don’t know what they will do,” said State Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro.

“The 600-plus officers of the Department of Pardons and Paroles answer to the board, not to the executive director,” Rowe said.

“This bill is going to have unintended consequences,” said Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham. “The Pardons and Paroles Board is not broken.”

The new director of Pardons and Paroles will be appointed by the governor, rather than working up through the ranks like the current executive director normally does. The governor appointed director would oversee the 600 employees instead of the board, whose sole purpose would become making the decisions on pardons and paroles rather than also serving in an administration function.

“One single person making all of these decisions is a problem I have with this,” Grimsley said.

In 1939, the Legislature took direct oversight over pardons and paroles from the governor and put it under the Legislature.

“I think they (Pardons and Paroles) should be answerable to the executive branch,” Rowe said. “Currently, they are answerable to no one.”

Rep. Wes Kitchens, R-Guntersville, said he represents the district where that 7-year-old boy who liked playing with John Deere tractors was killed while spending the summer with his great-grandmother.

Kitchens said the man who killed him had a long rap sheet that stretched to the 1980s and had escaped from prison before. He was even arrested a month before the slayings but was not sent back to prison for parole violations.

“We all make mistakes,” Rowe said. “When I try to cook I often make mistakes; but the parole board made a mistake that killed three people. If this case in Guntersville was the only one, I wouldn’t be bringing this; but we have crimes all over this state from people who got out and are re-offending, robbing, killing and raping.”

“I know Gov. (Kay) Ivey is a powerful woman, but this gives her too much power, and that concerns me,” said State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.

“If I was the governor, I would run so far away from this bill that you would think I was a track star,” Roger said. “We have had a lot of governors get in trouble for pan handling, and this bill sets up for a lot of pan handling.”

State Rep. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said he could not support handing over legislative authority over Pardons and Paroles “to the Governor and her minions.”

Due to opposition, Rowe agreed to amending the bill to restore the nominating committee of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house and the speaker pro tempore. An earlier version of the bill gave the governor more autonomy. The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court no longer serves on the nominating committee under this amendment.

Because of opposition from Democrats, the Republicans eventually had to invoke cloture.

House Majority Leader Nathanial Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, brought a cloture motion to force a vote. The cloture motion passed 74 to 24.

The bill passed the House 73 to 26. HB380 now goes to the Senate for their consideration.

The Southern Poverty Law Center opposes the bill.

“This bill, if passed by the Alabama Senate and signed by the governor, will have the immediate effect of limiting paroles, increasing overcrowding and increasing hopelessness and desperation of the people under the state’s care,” said SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Ebony Howard. “Without the incentive of reentering society, incarcerated people are more likely to act out in prisons, and our state’s prisons will continue to be among the most dangerous for incarcerated people and guards in the country.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall applauded passage of the legislation.

“I am pleased today that the Alabama House has heeded the call of thousands of Alabama crime victims in passing House Bill 380 to fix the badly broken Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, including giving the governor authority to appoint a director of Pardons and Paroles and establish their responsibilities,” Marshall said in a statement.  “In particular, I want to thank Rep. Connie Rowe for her commitment to correcting this extremely important public-safety problem. The legislation has been the subject of vigorous and lengthy debate, and I appreciate Speaker Mac McCutcheon’s dedication to positioning it for final passage. I look forward to similar efforts in the Alabama Senate in the days to come.”

Brandon Moseley is a senior reporter with eight and a half years at Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Facebook. Brandon is a native of Moody, Alabama, a graduate of Auburn University, and a seventh generation Alabamian.

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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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