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State not hiring nearly enough prison correctional officers to meet court order, according to court filing

Eddie Burkhalter

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In a court filing Friday an attorneys for plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Alabama Department of Corrections highlighted how few correctional officers the state has hired since a federal judge ordered at least 2,000 more be sent to work inside the state’s deadly, overcrowded prisons. 

The Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC), in a statement Monday pushed back on those assertions, saying the plaintiffs’ filing didn’t include recent officer graduates soon to be at work. 

Defendants efforts to address severe and deadly correctional understaffing in Alabama prisons have not yet proven to be effective in addressing both recruitment and retention,” Southern Poverty Law Center attorney CJ Sandley and Anil Mujumdar, counsel for Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program, wrote to the court in Friday’s filing. “Since the Court issued its Liability Opinion in June 2017, ADOC’s total number of COs, BCOs, and supervisors has decreased by 196 officers.” 

The attorneys were referring to correctional officers by the acronym “CO’s” and a new classification of lesser-trained officers, called basic correctional officers, by “BCOs.” 

The court filing goes on to state that comparing staffing numbers from December 2017 until Sept. 30, the most recent data filed by the ADOC, the state shows an increase of just 25 officers over nearly two years, which is less than 1.5 percent of the judge’s order to add 2,000 officers by February 2022. 

The Plaintiffs’ attorneys also asked the court not to allow ADOC to count another type of correctional officer, called a cubical correctional officer (CCO), who cannot work directly with inmates at all, to be counted toward that required 2,000 new hires. 

The Alabama Disability Advocacy Program and the Southern Poverty Law Center filed the civil suit Braggs v. Dunn in 2014, over the state’s treatment of state inmates’ mental health care, following a rash of suicides inside the state’s prisons. 

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In 2019 U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ruled that treatment of the inmates was unconstitutional and violates the Eighth Amendment, and wrote in his ruling that the Alabama Department of Corrections was “deliberately indifferent” to the treatment of the prisoners in isolation. 

In a response Monday to the court filing, Bill Lunsford, an attorney with the Birmingham-based law firm Maynard Cooper Gale who is representing ADOC, wrote that the agency believes the SPLC’s findings do not reflect progress already made. 

“We believe the SPLC intentionally took great liberties with complicated information that ultimately painted an inaccurate portrait of the meaningful progress we have made in addressing staffing challenges, including deliberately excluding data from the most effective recruitment period in ADOC history,” Lunsford wrote.  

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Lunsford said that between Oct. 1, 2018 and Sept. 30, 2019 ADOC has had a net gain of 193 “correctional security staff” and just recently graduated 125 more officers in December. 

It was unclear Monday if Lunsford was counting those new cubical correctional officers among those 193 “correctional security staff.” As of Monday evening APR hadn’t received answers to questions to an ADOC spokeswoman seeking clarification. 

The ADOC had previously requested that the court place under seal the most up-to-date staffing figures citing security concerns, according to court records. The court agreed to do so, allowing only staffing figures older than three months to be released publicly, according to those records. 

“The reality is that we are instituting sweeping changes to address both recruitment and retention concerns that will take both time and resources to fully implement, including building three new correctional facilities that will provide safer and more desirable working conditions,” Lunsford wrote in the statement. “This is not an easy undertaking, and the SPLC’s manufactured distractions only serve to detract from our collective mission to positively transform corrections in Alabama. We are solely focused on the task at-hand and remain fully committed to achieving this goal.”

The SPLC and the Alabama Disabilities Advocacy Program issued a statement later on Monday addressing Lunsford’s comments. 

“We stand by our January 3, 2020 court filing. According to Alabama’s Department of Corrections’ own data and consultants, it must hire over 2,000 certified correctional officers in the next two years,” the statement reads. “No matter how you do the math, Alabama’s prisons remain horrifically understaffed.  Alabama has a very long way to go to comply with the Court’s Order requiring hiring 2,200 correctional officers by February 2022.” 

In a Feb. 20, 2018 opinion Judge Thompson noted the state’s problematic staffing shortages. 

“The Department’s lack of correctional staff leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control” and causes “prisoners and correctional officers alike” to be “justifiably afraid for their safety.” the judge’s opinion reads. “As multiple witnesses testified at the understaffing remedial hearing, this legitimate perception of danger to correctional staff–which is a direct result of understaffing–begets further understaffing: it is a major impediment to recruitment and retention.” 

Judge Thompson in his opinion also wrote that the evidence presented at a recent hearing “plainly indicated that the understaffing remedy will require ADOC to hire significant numbers of additional correctional officers. Yet ADOC, despite its purported efforts to hire more officers, has in fact continued to hemorrhage correctional staff since the time of the June 2017 liability opinion–that is, when this court had already found that “persistent and severe shortages of … correctional staff” was an “overarching issue[]” that contributed to the defendants’ Eighth Amendment violation.” 

Lunsford notably argued at  the inaugural meeting of Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy in July that the state’s prisons aren’t overcrowded, which drew criticism from several lawmakers on that study group who attended the meeting. 

Formation of the study group came after the U.S. Department of Justice released a damning report on Alabama’s prison system in April highlighting the overcrowded, understaffed and deadly prisons. The state faces a federal takeover of its prison system. 

The DOJ’s report states that there is reasonable cause to believe that Alabama’s prisons are in violation of the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault.

 

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Crime

House Judiciary Committee passes bail reform law named for Aniah Blanchard

Jessa Reid Bolling

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The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill to give judges more discretion in denying bail to people accused of committing violent crimes. 

The bill is named for Aniah Blanchard, a 19-year-old Alabama college student who was kidnapped and murdered last year. The man charged with her murder, Ibraheed Yazeed, was out on bond for charges including kidnapping and attempted murder at the time he was arrested in connection with Blanchard’s case. 

Currently, judges can only deny bond in capital murder cases. The bill would allow judges to deny bail in cases involving certain violent offenses. 

Blanchard’s father, Elijah Blanchard, stepmother, Yashiba Blanchard, and mother, Angela Harris, spoke to the House Judiciary Committee today in support of the law. 

“This would not have happened to our child if this bill would have been in place,” Harris said. “We can save a lot of lives by doing this because, because with repeat violent offenders, they are going to repeat.”

If the bill passes the full House and Senate, it will appear on the ballot in November.

 

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Legislation would limit death penalty appeals

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals. 

“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.” 

Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.” 

The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level. 

The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said. 

“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.” 

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years. 

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“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.” 

State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.” 

The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located. 

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ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said. 

There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics

Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives. 

According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama. 

The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham. 

The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned. 

Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case. 

It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial. 

The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun. 

A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.

Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.

 

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Courts

Conservative Leadership Conference panel discusses prison reform

Brandon Moseley

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A panel discussed reforming Alabama’s prisons at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Florence Saturday.

State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on the state prison task force. He is also a Republican candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, Place 1.

“Prison reform is a very vague term,” Ward said.

Ward warned that the state is under the threat of federal receivership of its prison and “It is going to cost money,” to satisfy the federal courts and the Department of Justice.

Recidivism is the rate that convicts re-offend once they are released. Decreasing the recidivism rate is a key component of addressing prison overcrowding.

Rich Anderson works with the Alabama Attorney General’s office.

“There are plenty of folks in prison that don’t want to do anything else,” Anderson said.

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“There is an old saying that you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make him drink,” Anderson said. “I want to make sure that there is water to be had if these guys want to drink.”

Chris Connolly is the Lauderdale County District Attorney.

“If they are selling drugs in Alabama they need to go to prison,” Connolly said.

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“Taking away local discretion is a bad thing to me,” Connolly added on proposed sentencing law changes.

Mary Windom is the presiding Judge of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Windom is running for re-election in the Republican primary for her Place 1 seat.

She thanked Ward for working with her on reducing the number of frivolous appeals of criminal verdicts. It took two years for the Legislature to understand.

“40 percent of them (inmates in Alabama’s prisons) have a mental health issue,” Ward said. 76 percent of them are there for violent crimes.

Anderson said that Alabama currently has 175 people on death row and the AG’s office only has eight lawyers in our division to handle all of those appeals from death row inmates.

Windom said that she and the other judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals have a large caseload.

“The five judges on the court of the criminal appeals handle all of those case plus every other criminal appeal,” Anderson explained. “One of the frustrations is how long death penalty cases take.”

Anderson said that many of those filings by defense teams in death penalty appeals cases are two hundred and three hundred pages long.

Connolly said, “David Riley executed a guy who was doing his job in a liquor store. Everybody knows he did it. If it (the death penalty) were real he would be dead.”

“It takes twenty years,” Connolly said.

“It is down to fourteen,” Ward answered.

“It needs to happen sooner,” Connolly replied. A guy like David Riley should already have been executed. “The problem is that the appeals never end. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

Rich Anderson blamed “Fake News” for creating a “false narrative” that there are lots of innocent people convicted of a crime. When there is a retrial and a guy like me can’t find the witness from twenty years ago that person is released and the defense claims he was exonerated and not guilty of the crime in the first place. That is not true.

“They are poisoning the public with that the prosecutor is not a minister of justice,” Anderson said. “That is a problem in our country this false narrative that we have all of these people. Exoneration is a false narrative.”

Ward said that exoneration is only a small part of criminal cases.

“I have been a defense attorney,” Connolly said. “I know how that game works.”

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Crime

House passes bill to make it a hate crime to attack law enforcement

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would add law enforcement officers to Alabama’s hate crimes statute. It now moves to the Senate.

The House passed HB59 by a margin of 92 to 0.

Under current law a crime become a hate crime if a person is victimized because of their race, creed, or disability. Murder to make money, in a crime of passion, or in the commission of a crime is murder. If a racist targets a person because of their race, then it become a hate crime and additional sentencing enhancements kick in under Alabama sentencing guidelines. House Bill 59 would make targeting a member of law enforcement because they are a member of law enforcement also a hate crime.

House Bill 59 is sponsored by State Representative Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville).

Reynolds said that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall supports the legislation.

“An attack on law enforcement in Alabama is an attack on all of her citizens—an attack on all Alabamians.…” Marshall said on social media. “If you take the life the life of a law enforcement officer, you will likely have forfeited your life as well.”

Marshall stated, “To the brave men and women who wear that badge, my heroes: Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Keep fighting the good fight, because your cause is righteous. Know that you have our support and our eternal gratitude.”

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Reynolds said that attacks on law enforcement, whether it is throwing water on them, assaults, or assassinations are up across the country. “We are not going to stand for it anymore.”

State Representative Mary Moore (D-Birmingham) said, “I support the bill, but there are too many guns on the street.”

Moore proposed banning high powered rifles and AR-15s. “We need to level the playing field for them.” :We stand ready to come up with a bipartisan bill to curb the number of guns on the street. We need men and women who are not afraid of the National Rifle Association.”

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“We have got to change how police officers are treated,” said Rep. Allen Treadaway (R-Morris). “I have been to too many police funerals.”

Treadaway is a police captain with Birmingham Police Department.

“The disrespect for police officers is unprecedented,” Treadaway said. “I have been a law enforcement officer for 30 years and I have not seen anything like it. We can’t hire police. We can’t retain police.”

Rep. Artis “A. J.” McCampbell (D-Livingston) said, “We have had eight police officers killed in the last 13 months.”

“How do we enhance the crimes when we already have a capital case for the murder of a police officer?” McCampbell asked.

Reynolds said that the sentence enhancements would apply when the police were targeted; but it is not a capital crime. 6,500 police officers were assaulted last year.

Reynolds said that harming an officer while attempting to escape or resisting arrest would not qualify as a hate crime. Attacking police because the motive is hate of the police would be a hate crime and then sentencing enhancements would apply.

Reynolds said that under current law if they are convicted of a capital crime of killing the police they get the death penalty.

Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) said, “Is there a way to just give them the death penalty without going through all the appeals?”

Reynolds said, “I sure wish we could.”

Rogers said, “The death penalty should be automatic.”

Rogers daughter Mary Smith mas murdered.

“It has to be adjudicated in the court system before these enhancements would not come into play,” Reynolds said. “I hope there will come a day when a bill like this is not needed because people respect law enforcement.”

Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) said that the police, sheriffs, and other law enforcement and first responders at the thin blue line protecting us and our families.

Mooney is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.

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