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Alabamians for Fair Justice calls for major criminal justice reforms

Bill Britt

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Alabama Speaker of the House Mac McCutcheon and Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh have said that lawmakers will address state prisons in the coming Legislative Session.

It is not certain whether the Legislature will consider criminal justice reforms as a part of an overall solution to prison overcrowding, but Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) Coalition is calling for significant reforms to reduce Alabama’s prison population.

AFJ’s recommendations include abolishing Alabama’s habitual felony offender law, addressing the recent shutdown of paroles, redefining sentences for marijuana possession, and addressing drug addiction as a public health issue, not a criminal matter, according to a recent press release.

“We call on Governor Ivey and state leaders to have the courage to break our state’s addiction to incarceration,” said LaTonya Tate, Executive Director of Alabama Justice Initiative. “As a former parole officer for nearly a decade, I can say with certainty that Alabama cannot keep up these practices. Our system is inhumane and it doesn’t increase public safety.”

A report from the U.S. Department of Justice released in April 2019, found “reasonable cause to believe that Alabama fails to provide constitutionally adequate conditions and that prisoners experience serious harm, including deadly harm, as a result.”

DOJ’s investigation revealed that prisoners were susceptible to “an enormous breath” of sexual abuse and assault but other types of violence as well, including gruesome murder and beatings that went without intervention.

Justice Department report documents horrific violence, sexual abuse in Alabama prisons

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APR has documented at least 14 inmate deaths in 2019, which is more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009.

Holman prison inmate killed in December, at least 14th prison homicide in 2019.

AFJ is asking the Legislature to reform the Habitual Felony Offender Act.

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“Alabama needs to modify the HFOA to reduce the numbers of life and life without parole sentences, significantly reducing long-term incarceration rates and incentivizing good behavior,” according to a press statement.

The organization reports that “the state has at least 500 people serving life without parole sentences for non-homicides, accounting for over 11,000 years of combined punishment for crimes that would not result in terminal sentence today.”

AFJ also recommends the state limit life without parole in capital murder and limit eligible convictions, preventing crimes committed decades ago from enhancing sentences for current crimes.

According to AFJ, “Since new leadership assumed control of Alabama’s parole process in September 2019, the number of eligible people considered for parole and the amount of paroles granted have fallen dramatically, worsening Alabama’s prison overcrowding at an alarming pace.”

Since September, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the release of 92 percent of people who were scheduled for parole hearings, according to a report by the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama and the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has also drastically reduced the number of inmates being granted those hearings.

ACLU of Alabama report: Parole reductions to worsen prison overcrowded in 2020

Updating Alabama’s marijuana laws is another priority for AFJ.

Currently, an individual can face up to a year in jail and a maximum $6,000 fine for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana, according to AFJ. “Meanwhile, the state spends $22 million each year enforcing marijuana possession laws, draining resources of law enforcement, district attorneys, forensic labs, and Alabama’s courts,” the organization contends.

AFJ would have the Legislature raise the level of marijuana required for a trafficking conviction above 2.2 lbs. They would also have a citation-only law instituted with violations punishable by a fine of not more than $150 for possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. They also advocate for removing the felony classification and establish a reset period of five years for possession cases and expand expungement eligibility.

Lastly, AFJ recommends a change of substance abuse laws as part of their overall package of justice reforms initiatives.

“Over the past five years, possession of a controlled substance is the most frequent felony conviction in Alabama, with as many as 4,600 cases each year. Funneling people with mental health and addiction issues into the prison system is not sustainable,” stated AFJ.

The coalition recommends reclassify unlawful possession of certain drugs as misdemeanors or set a possession threshold (e.g., five or fewer pills) to trigger a felony charge. Distinguishing substances by schedule and provide lesser penalties for substances considered less harmful per schedule designation. They also propose increased funding for mental health treatment, including expanding programs that use therapy instead of incarceration.

These recommendations from the coalition come nine months after DOJ determined Alabama’s men’s prisons to violate the U.S. Constitution and the state “deliberately indifferent” to the dangers people face within its correctional facilities.

Alabamians for Fair Justice is a coalition made up of formerly incarcerated individuals, family members of those currently or recently serving time in Alabama’s prisons, advocates, and civil justice organizations.

 

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Thieves targeting food stamp recipients via text messages

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

The Alabama Department of Human Resources on Wednesday warned the public that thieves are targeting people who receive Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program benefit cards, commonly known as food stamps, through text messages. 

The text messages typically request personal information, including Social Security numbers, bank account numbers and SNAP electronic benefits transfer card or PIN numbers, the department said in a press release.

Some text messages also falsely claim people have been selected to receive food stamps.

“Identity thieves are using new tricks in hopes of catching SNAP recipients off guard during this time of heightened uncertainty,” said Alabama DHR Commissioner Nancy Buckner in a statement. “It is so important to take the precautions necessary to protect your identity, along with the integrity of this vital program. Following these simple but effective tips can greatly reduce your risk of harm.”

DHR recommends these tips to protect against the scam:

  • Never provide personal information to an unfamiliar person or organization.
  • If a text message seems like a scam, delete it. Do not reply. 
  • Do not click on any links in an unexpected text message.
  • Beware that scammers often pressure victims to “act now!”
  • If an offer or claim sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  • Do not trust caller ID. Scammers can use “spoofing” technology to disguise their phone numbers.

SNAP recipients who are unsure if a request for information is legitimate should contact their local DHR office at a verified phone number. Contact information is available here.

The Food Assistance Division of DHR administers the SNAP program in Alabama. More information about the program can be found here.

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John Paul Dejnozka, the “Southwest Molester,” dies after testing positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9. (VIA ALABAMA DEPARTMENT OF CORRECTIONS)

John Paul Dejnozka, 76, died on Sept. 9 after testing positive for COVID-19, becoming the 21st Alabama inmate to have died after being confirmed to have the disease.

Dejnozka, who was dubbed the “Southwest Molester,” was convicted in 1980 in connection with the assault of at least 18 women in their homes, attacking, torturing and raping some of them, according to news accounts. He was sentenced to 830 years on convictions of two counts of rape, two counts of assault with intent to maim, one count of burglary and assault with intent to ravish, 11 counts of first-degree burglary and one count of second-degree burglary.

Dejnozka, who was serving at the Holman Correctional Facility, was tested for COVID-19 after exhibiting symptoms of the disease, according to a press release from the Alabama Department of Corrections. He was taken to a local hospital for treatment, where he remained until his death.

ADOC also announced that six other inmates at Holman prison and one at Ventress Correctional Facility have tested positive for COVID-19. In total, 393 Alabama inmates have tested positive for coronavirus, of which 45 remain active, according to ADOC. As of Sept. 6 the state had tested 1,886 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates for COVID-19.

There have been 372 confirmed COVID-19 cases among Alabama prison workers, while 340 have since recovered, according to the department. Two workers at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women died after testing positive for the disease.

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Governor announces grant to aid domestic violence victims amid COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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(STOCK PHOTO)

Gov. Kay Ivey on Friday announced approval of a $10,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Justice to help domestic violence victims access help during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Alabama Coalition Against Domestic Violence is using the funds to provide direct services and support during COVID-19 for victims of family, domestic and dating violence, Ivey’s office said in a press release.

“The global pandemic has made many aspects of our lives more challenging, including the ability to seek help due to domestic violence,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend the work of the staff at the coalition who are working every day to help those in need during the additional challenges posed by COVID-19.”

The coalition supports shelters throughout Alabama and operates regional 24-hour crisis telephone lines for victims needing information or seeking to escape violent situations. It also provides training and technical assistance for police and others who encounter domestic violence situations and helps develop public policy to reduce domestic violence and ensure victims receive proper services.

The Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs is administering the grant from funds made available as part of the CARES Act.

“ADECA stands with Gov. Ivey in support of the coalition and other likeminded organizations as they work throughout the state to provide vital help to domestic violence victims,” ADECA Director Kenneth Boswell said in a statement. “The partnership between ADECA and the coalition helps ensure that this level of assistance will continue to be available throughout the state even during a pandemic.”

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Appeals court upholds Lowndes County capital murder conviction

Brandon Moseley

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Twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Mac Girdner

Attorney General Steve Marshall said this week that the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction of Deandra Marquis Lee on capital murder during a robbery.

Lee, 24, is from Montgomery and was convicted in Lowndes County Circuit Court in October 2018 for the 2012 murders of 9-year-old twins Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett and their 73-year-old caregiver, Jack Girdner.

On Friday, the Court of Criminal Appeals released a decision upholding Lee’s conviction.

On June 3, 2012, Terrye Moorer dropped off her twins, Jordan and Taylor Dejerinett, with Girdner, their caregiver who was also Moorer’s friend from church.

That evening, when Moorer drove to Girdner’s residence to pick up her children, no one was home so Moorer filed a police report. On June 5, 2012, the bodies of Girdner and the two children were found on a dirt road off of Alabama Highway 21 in Lowndes County.

The police determined that Lee was a chief suspect based upon reports that he was seen driving Girdner’s white Mercedes on the day of the murders and the last call made to Girdner’s phone was from a number belonging to Lee’s mother.

Lee’s cousin, Joe Hamilton, testified that on June 3, Lee took Hamilton home in a white Mercedes that had a skateboard and a bag in the back.

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Moorer testified that her children had similar items with them when she left them with Girdner. Lee’s fingerprints were also found inside Girdner’s vehicle.

Lee told several people that he murdered Girdner but not the children.

Curtis Robinson, who was incarcerated with Lee in Autauga County, testified that Lee “went there to commit burglary and it turned to something else.”

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Robinson testified that Lee told him he killed Girdner and the two children.

Lowndes County District Attorney Charlotte Tesmer’s office prosecuted this case and obtained a guilty verdict. Lee was sentenced to life imprisonment without parole. Lee subsequently sought to have his conviction reversed on appeal.

The Attorney General’s Criminal Appeals Division handled the case during the appeals process, arguing for the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals to affirm Lee’s convictions.

Alabama Attorney General Marshall commended Assistant Attorney General John Davis for his successful work on this case and thanked the State Bureau of Investigation and the district attorney and her staff for their valuable assistance in defending the capital murder conviction.

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