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County commissioners report: 2015 prison reform led to less prisoners in prison but more in county jails

Brandon Moseley

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Wednesday, the Executive Director of the Association of County Commissions of Alabama Sonny Brasfield told county commissioners that sentencing reform in 2015 has shifted more prisoners and the costs of those prisons from state prisons to county jails and county budgets.

“I let you down,” Brasfield told the commissioners.

In 2015, the state legislature passed sentencing reform in order to deal with the prison overcrowding issue. It reduced prison overcrowding, but according to a report by the County Commissions dramatically increased the number of prisoners being sent to county jails shifting much of the costs to the local level adversely affecting county budgets across the state/
Brasfield said that they had anticipated this in 2015; but the legislature passed it anyway over the objections of the ACCA.

Association’s annual Legislative Conference in Auburn.

“In 2015, counties and sheriffs encouraged state leaders to move slowly and to consider the unintended impact that significant sentencing and parole reform could have on local budgets,” ACCA Executive Director Brasfield said in a statement. “In the years that have followed, our fears have been confirmed.”

In 2015, the legislature changed the punishment for most parole violations, such as failure to find work or a failed drug test from revocation of parole to a 48 hour stay in the county jail. This is called a “dip” in the Alabama justice system vernacular. A parolee who continues to violate the terms of his parole can get up to six dips before he or she gets sent back to prison; but not for the remainder of his or her sentence. Instead they go to prison for just 45 days. This is called a “dunk.” There was already a backlog of prisoners who have already had a trial, have been convicted and were sitting in the county jail waiting for ADOC to come pick them up. The creation of the dunk system means that now there are all those repeat parole violators who are also waiting in the county jail for ADOC to free up prison beds so they can serve their 45 days.

Brasfield said that the state should not repeat the mistakes made in 2015.

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“We did nothing to solve crime in 2015 what we did was address how we deal with criminal behavior,” Brasfield said. “We should learn from what happened because we are in the same place that we were in 2014

Brasfield said that the counties expressed specific concerns with “dips” & “dunks” adding pressure on jail beds, medical costs & lawsuits; but the legislature listed to “experts” from other states instead of the county commissioners.

“We think anybody from outside of Alabama are smarter than us are smarter than us. They aren’t.” Brasfield said. “There is not a magic solution. There is not a solution that does not cost money.”

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The ACCA report, “Alabama’s Unresolved Inmate Crisis,” highlights the staggering growth of State inmates in county jails over the past five years and the annual price tag that is challenging local officials to balance the unexpected costs.

Data collected from State agencies and a survey of all 67 county budgets shows the presence of State inmates in county jails has almost tripled since 2014. In 2014, a total of 1,990 State inmates were housed in county jails. In 2018, counties housed almost 8,000 state inmates in 2018, according to the report.

“As the legislative session nears, counties must seek relief from these growing costs,” Brasfield said, “because the solution to the State’s prison crisis cannot again be to push more inmates down to the local level.

The cost of operating the jail and law enforcement at the county level has increased by some $64 million since 2014, the report shows.
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“This increase is more than twice the rate of inflation,” Brasfield explained. “Certainly, counties want to be a partner in this year’s efforts to address the condition of the State prison system. At the same time, we believe the facts are clear — Alabama must revisit the reforms of 2015 and provide relief to county budgets that have been crippled by the growth of State inmates.”

“We need to go back and look at 2015,” Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) promised the county commissioners. “I guarantee you that you will have a voice in this process. We are focusing on the dips and the dunks as well as recidivism.”

Bennett Wright is the executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission.

Wright told the Commissioners that Tennessee is in the same situation. They have a backlog of 5,300 prisoners that are in county jails waiting to go to the state prison.

“The state of Tennessee writes them (the Tennessee County Commissions) a $180 million check for that overflow,” Wright said.

Alabama does not reimburse the counties for their costs, which have soared after the passage of the sentencing reforms that were passed in 2015.

Read the full report here.

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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Justice Ginsburg’s death will supercharge a heated 2020 campaign

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

Brandon Moseley

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President Donald Trump, left, and former Vice President Joe Biden, right, are running for president in 2020. (STAFF SGT. TONY HARP/AIR NATIONAL GUARD AND GAGE SKIDMORE/FLIKR)

Just hours after the death of 87-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg on Friday, conservatives, including the Alabama-based Foundation for Moral Law, said Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to reverse the ideological trend of the nation’s highest court.

The passing of one of the court’s most liberal justices so close to the Nov. 3 general election has set off a political firestorm as to what president should pick the next justice — President Donald Trump or Joe Biden, should he defeat Trump in November.

The controversy over when and how to confirm a new justice will likely supercharge an already heated 2020 election campaign. Trump was at a campaign rally on Friday night when he learned about the justice’s death from reporters.

“Just died? Wow, I did not know that,” Trump said. “She was an amazing woman. Whether you agreed or not she led an amazing life. She was an amazing woman. I am sad to hear that.”

Ginsburg, since her appointment by President Bill Clinton, has been bastion of the court’s more liberal wing. The court was divided with four “liberal” justices led by Ginsburg and four “conservative” justices led by Samuel Alito.

Chief Justice John Roberts, though appointed by President George W. Bush, has been the swing vote on a number of major issues since the retirement of Justice Anthony Kennedy in 2018. Her death gives Trump the opportunity to appoint her replacement and potentially shape the direction of the court for decades to come.

Conservatives want Trump to select the nominee and the current GOP-controlled Senate to confirm the Trump appointee.

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The Foundation for Moral Law — a conservative legal group founded by former Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore — released a statement saying that Ginsburg’s passing is an opportunity to move the court in a more conservative direction.

“For many years United States Supreme Court has been a bastion for liberal anti-God ideology,” Moore said. “The passing of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg will be an opportunity to reverse this trend. I’m hopeful that President Trump will immediately nominate a true conservative who understands that our rights come from God and no authority in this country can take those rights from us.”

“This is a very critical time for our country and our future and the future of our posterity depends upon our vigilance and direction,” Moore said.

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Judicial Watch, another conservative legal group, echoed Moore’s statement.

“Judicial Watch sends it condolences to the family of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She had a wonderful judicial temperament that will always be remembered,” said Judicial Watch President Tom Fitton. “President Trump now has a historic opportunity to nominate yet another constitutional conservative who will honor the Constitution and the rule of law across the full spectrum of constitutional issues.”

“And the U.S. Senate should move quickly to work with President Trump to consider and approve a new justice who will faithfully apply the U.S. Constitution,” Fitton said. “There is no reason we cannot have a new justice by Election Day.”

Trump is expected to put forth a nominee to fill Ginsburg’s seat in the coming days, according to ABC News.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, wrote in a statement that, “President Trump’s nominee will receive a vote on the floor of the United States Senate.”

But Democratic senators and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-New York, disagree.

“The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice,” Schumer wrote on social media Friday, parroting a similar quote McConnell used in 2016 when he refused to give then-President Barack Obama’s nominee, Merrick Garland, hearings and a vote for confirmation to the court. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Republicans in the Senate blocked Obama from selecting Justice Antonin Scalia’s replacement. Scalia was the most conservative jurist on the court.

Ginsburg was a staunch supporter of abortion rights and voter protections, and she played a major role in upholding Roe v. Wade, the Supreme Court decision protecting abortion rights. She also voted in favor of same-sex marriage and to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act.

Most political observers expect Trump to appoint a woman to fill Ginsburg’s spot. Political insiders have suggested that Trump believes that appointing a woman to the court could help him with woman, a key swing demographic that will likely decide the next election.

Will the Senate confirm Trump’s appointment before the election or wait until after the public votes? If Republicans lose control of the Senate, could a lame duck GOP majority select the direction of the court on their way out?

Alabama Sen. Doug Jones has been widely criticized for his vote against the confirmation of Justice Brett Kavanaugh. If the vote comes before the Nov. 3 election, Jones’s decision on whether to confirm Trump’s appointee will be heavily scrutinized.

The questions about the Supreme Court is likely to only further inflame passions on both sides this election cycle.

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Judge dismisses former Drummond exec’s lawsuit against Balch and Bingham

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A Jefferson County Circuit Court judge has dismissed a lawsuit against the Balch & Bingham law firm filed by a former coal executive who claimed the law firm’s poor legal advice resulted in his conviction on federal bribery charges. 

Judge Tamara Harris Johnson ruled that the statute of limitations had expired on former Drummond Coal vice president David Roberson’s $50 million lawsuit against Balch and his former employer, Drummond.

The suit claimed that Balch attorneys, primarily Joel Gilbert, who was also convicted of federal bribery charges, assured Roberson that a plan to recruit then-State Rep. Oliver Robinson to use his office to thwart efforts by the EPA to clean up toxic soil in the 35th Avenue Superfund site in North Birmingham was legal.

Johnson’s ruling dismissing the lawsuit against Balch didn’t dispute Roberson’s claims but said that under the Alabama Legal Service Liability Action statute, Roberson should have filed his claim no later than November 2018. He filed it in March 2019. 

“All claims against defendant Balch & Bingham are barred by the statute of limitations,” Johnson wrote. 

Johnson said a motion to dismiss filed by Drummond will be addressed separately at a later date. 

Roberson and Gilbert were the only two executives found guilty by a jury in October 2018 in the well-publicized federal case that saw Robinson plead guilty and go to prison for accepting bribes. 

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Roberson maintained his innocence throughout, saying he relied on the advice and counsel of Gilbert and others at Balch. During the sentencing phase, U.S. District Court Judge Abdul Kallon said he was moved by Roberson’s history and the character witnesses who testified on his behalf, and the judge said he found Roberson to be less culpable than Gilbert because he relied on Gilbert’s legal advice. 

Gilbert was sentenced to five years in federal prison. Robinson was sentenced to two and a half years.

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Trial begins in lawsuit challenging state’s COVID-19 election rules

Micah Danney

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(ALABAMAVOTES.GOV/APR GRAPHIC)

A virtual trial opened on Tuesday in a lawsuit charging that Alabama’s requirements of witnesses and photo ID for absentee ballots and a “de facto ban” on curbside voting are unconstitutional.

The suit, People First v. Merrill, was filed on May 1 by the Southern Poverty Law Center, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program and the American Civil Liberties Union against Secretary of State John Merrill.

Merrill has touted the rules for the election in November as guaranteeing “a higher degree of credibility than ever before in the history of the state.”

The SPLC said that while Merrill did permit any eligible voter to apply for an absentee ballot by claiming “physical illness or infirmity,” the witness and ID absentee requirements should be waived and the curbside voting ban lifted because they present unfair obstacles to plaintiffs’ ability to vote.

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Federal court orders outside monitoring of Alabama prisons’ mental health care

Josh Moon

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(STOCK PHOTO)

A federal judge has ordered external monitoring of mental health care in Alabama’s prisons, noting a long and disturbing history of inadequate care and refusal by the state to willingly improve conditions.

In his 124-page order, U.S. District Court Judge Myron Thompson noted decades of insufficient care and lawsuits and established a hybrid monitoring plan that will see an external monitoring team train Alabama Department of Corrections’ staff.

“ADOC’s long history of repeated litigation regarding the inadequacy of its mental-health care is independent evidence of its inability to sustain improvements without the type of oversight ordered today,” Thompson wrote in the order. “This history serves as evidence of why court monitoring is necessary.”

The order is part of the long-running Braggs v. Dunn litigation, filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, Baker Donelson and the Dagney Johnson Law Group, that has resulted in numerous changes and harsh rebukes from Thompson over ADOC’s consistently poor mental health care of prisoners. At one point, Thompson labeled ADOC’s mental health care as “horrendously inadequate.”

That inadequate care has resulted in Alabama having one of the highest rates of inmate suicides in the nation.

“People in Alabama prisons have been languishing for far too long at the hands of state officials,” said Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for Criminal Justice Reform at the SPLC. “Despite historical intervention and court monitoring, ADOC has failed to permanently uphold its obligation to protect the people incarcerated in Alabama prisons. The court’s order requiring long-term external and internal compliance monitoring will hopefully ensure that people with mental health needs will finally receive the humane and just treatment they deserve.”

The parties will be back in court on Sept. 14 in a hearing to determine if Thompson’s order falls within the guidelines of the new Prison Litigation Reform Act, which limits the amount of change that can be imposed on a prison system by the courts.

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