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Opinion | DeMarco misses the point of recent ACLU report

Kira Fonteneau

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Paul DeMarco wrote a letter to the editor dated January 13, 2020, in which he responded to a recent report by the Campaign for Smart Justice with ACLU of Alabama. The report analyzed 5 years-worth of data and projected a spike in Alabama’s already overcrowded prison population in 2020, mostly due to the parole board considering far fewer people and denying release to 92 percent of people considered.

Mr. DeMarco mischaracterized the report and attacked the ACLU with vague and tired rhetoric meant to vilify incarcerated people and those who advocate for smart criminal justice reform, yet failed to provide any evidence that the “reforms” would do anything to make Alabama safe. His false claim that “the ACLU is more worried about convicted felons than the safety of Alabama communities,” could have been lifted from a 1980’s stump speech by any tough talking politician only interested in getting elected on fear, and not substantive, thoughtful, and fair policies.  

The ACLU did not ask the board to set prisoners free. The organization simply examined paroles and the relationship to Alabama’s prison population, then sounded the alarm that our prisons are approaching an untenable level of overcrowding. This comes as the Department of Justice already determined our prisons to be unconstitutional due to runaway violence and horrific overcrowding. A responsible government should be held accountable for a legacy crisis like this, and that includes all agencies involved in sending people to prison, managing them in prison and deciding when and whether or not they are set free.

Don’t be fooled. The “reforms” DeMarco supports will do nothing to make Alabamians safe. Instead, it will do the opposite. When the Trump Department of Justice released its findings on Alabama’s prison system it put the State on notice that if it did not reform by fixing the overcrowded, unsanitary, and understaffed prisons, it would face a lawsuit.  A lawsuit like that could result in a mandatory release of prisoners without the benefit of the Parole Board’s oversight. DeMarco also glosses over the fact that most violent offenders are either ineligible for release on parole or required to serve at least 85 percent of their sentences. The time is now to discuss the right way to address our prison population. Victims and advocates deserve a seat at the table as we discuss the way forward, but we must start with facts before we discuss solutions.

We believe the best way to ensure justice for victims is to provide safe containment and meaningful opportunities for rehabilitation and re-entry, so people who break the law won’t do it again. We know that the majority of parole eligible prisoners will ultimately be released whether they are granted parole or not. Sending citizens to hellish prisons with no incentives and no hope of a fair chance at parole does nothing for public safety or crime victims. Instead of attacking Alabamians who are advocating for sound, sober-minded reforms, we should be attacking these very real problems together as one Alabama, moving toward a more just and humane society for all.

 

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Opinion | Hope in the time of the Coronavirus

Bradley Byrne

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In Genesis 2, God says “It is not good that the man should be alone.”  He made us for Himself, but he also made us for one another.  Separation is painful for us all.

This fight against the coronavirus called COVID-19 is hard.  We are forced to separate from one another.  Our economy is sorely wounded.  Worse, our neighbors are infected with this disease, some fighting for their lives, some tragically losing that fight.

We are better, stronger than this disease.  All of us have a role to play, to responsibly social distance from one another, to practice proper hygiene and to know when it’s time to be tested and/or to quarantine ourselves.

Meanwhile, all levels of government play an important role.  Our governors and mayors, as well as public health officers, must issue the appropriate orders to protect us.  Closing restaurants and bars, beaches and parks, small retailers and large group meetings, are each hard decisions.   They must start and end based upon sound medical and professional advice, and plain common sense.  We at the Federal government must work with state and local leaders to inform their difficult decisions and help them, where appropriate, carry out these tough decisions.

When last week’s unemployment insurance filings were reported at over 3 million, the highest ever by far in our history, and when the number of cases and deaths dramatically expanded, it was clear we had entered truly extraordinary times, calling for extraordinary government action.

So, with broad and deep bipartisan support, we passed the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Security Act (CARES Act), providing over $2 trillion in support for individual citizens, workers who have lost their jobs, small businesses so that they will not close or lay off their workers, larger businesses in the way of loans and not bailouts, healthcare, education, transit, and more.  Unprecedented resources have been quickly directed for more tests, more personal protective equipment, research and development for treatments and even a cure, and ultimately a vaccine.

I don’t like everything in the bill.  But, our people are hurting, our way of life threatened, and this is no time to let these issues slow down the effort to get the job done.

My staff and I are working from home and maintaining social distance.  We have helped repatriate a number of citizens from our district who have found themselves stuck in a foreign country closing its borders.  We are answering many calls on the laws we have passed to respond to this disease and with questions about the disease itself.

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Last week I was on several conference calls with groups in the district and a telephone town hall with nearly 4,000 constituents.  In one, a person asked me to give them hope.

So, here goes.

We are a great and powerful nation.  We were born in an uncertain and dangerous revolution, invaded even in our Capitol by the greatest power in the world just 40 years after our founding, suffered a civil war costing 600,000 of our lives, fought two desperate world wars, watched our economy nearly disappear in a Great Depression, tore ourselves apart in the social upheavals of the 60s, and endured an attack by terrorists on our largest city and the center of our national defense.  And yet, after each one, we Americans not only survived but learned how to make our country greater.

 Isaiah, writing during the Babylonian captivity, put it in beautiful language:

But those who hope in the Lord will renew their strength.  They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint.

As we approach Passover and Easter, let us remember the hope expressed in the miraculous delivery of the Jewish people from slavery and the resurrection of Christ who defeated death itself.  And as we continue this difficult fight, let us be confident in the ultimate result, using our own strength and leaning on God’s.

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Opinion | Success in Coronavirus response must be defined and coordinated

Phil Williams

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Isn’t it amazing to see the grandstanders who show up in a crisis that have the luxury of not having to own a plan?

I’ve heard a bevy of pundits and those not actually in charge of anything (elected and unelected) shouting that the sky is falling.

None of them have offered a solution other than to yell louder so that they can be known for having yelled.

Knuckleheads. Every one. 

I’m not going to be one of those knuckleheads.

I don’t have all of the solutions. I’m not as privy to the latest science, nor the latest intelligence. All of the other good-idea-fairies that flutter in and flutter out just provide background noise for the media. As an alternative train of thought I’m speaking here from my experiences in coordinated operational planning, something I have been a part of many times.

You’ve likely heard the catch phrases before: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail” or, “no decision is a decision for no”, and even, “tell me what right looks like so I’ll know it when I see it”. All these well-worn phrases mean is that decision makers have the responsibility of not only reacting, but of pro-acting. An attack calls for a plan, and plans call for phase lines.

During your quarantine time take a quick look at Operation Desert Storm. One of the most successful military operations in modern history was planned and executed in lightning fashion and coordinated in part by benchmarks for the advance that the military calls phase lines. I use this analogy because it is apt and accurate.

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We are on a war footing and the enemy is an invisible virus that wants to diminish our quality of life.

In military parlance a “phase line” is an operational command and control measure that is drawn across the battlefield. As troops advance against the enemy the pre-established phase lines provide two purposes: they offer a milestone that must be reached before the next phase of the advance, and they help keep all of the various combatant units on line and advancing in synch against the enemy.

We have hunkered in the face of assault for weeks now. We have begun to regroup. If we are to advance against our enemy then our leadership needs to begin setting phase lines for the march to recovery that will define what right looks like as we move forward.

Most importantly, we will also be able to coordinate a synchronized advance as a whole-of-society approach. That’s right – a “whole-of-society” approach. It’s not just government.

We are all in this together.

This past week Governor Ivey, in conjunction with state health officer Dr. Scott Harris, issued certain proclamations designed to further the defense of the State against Covid-19. Depending on who you listen to it was either too much or not enough. I for one believe that she took the better measured approach by shuttering and restraining only select areas of society. I also read Mayor Stimpson’s most recent update in which he took a similar approach for Mobile and stressed that he is coordinating with the Governor’s office.

It is my understanding that not every elected official in the State has chosen to coordinate their efforts with anyone but themselves and their own agendas. I suspect that many of them are hoping that no one actually asks them what their plan is.

To ably move Alabama forward leaders absolutely need to begin telling us what the phase lines will be for the counterattack.

Just by example: what are the triggers for more restrictive measures? At the same time what are the metrics we are looking for at which point non-essential retail businesses can reopen? How much of a decrease in positive CV-19 tests must we see before we reopen schools? If we achieve a certain level of reliability in testing and containment will Dentists be able to return to practice? If Dentists can practice then should churches also reopen? Private sector businesses, the school systems, churches, the Courts, the medical community, the whole-of-society, is willing and able to work within defined parameters but they must be told what those parameters are. 

And to be honest we all know that no plan survives first contact with the enemy. We will adapt the plan. Phase lines might even shift to the left or right as the operational environment becomes clearer.

So be it.

But people, businesses, the markets, all respond stronger to the confident presentation of a plan than they ever will in the face of an undefined and uncoordinated response to a crisis.

This difficult time we live in is not our new normal. Not at all. At a point that we all pray is near, we will return to a life that looks strikingly similar to what it was before we ever heard of the Coronavirus. But in the interim we must march together with well-defined phase lines that keep us all focused and show us what the measuring sticks for success look like on the road to victory.

Phil Williams, API Director of Policy Strategy and General Counsel, is a former State Senator from Gadsden and a practicing attorney. For updates, follow him on Twitter at @SenPhilWilliams and visit alabamapolicy.org.

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Opinion | Meanwhile, back in Washington County

Larry Lee

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The South Oak Grove Baptist church has been a fixture in southwest Washington County since 1880.  It doubled as a school for nearly 60 years, until a school was built in nearby Fruitdale.

Today it is a staging site for volunteers working to provide meals for local students prevented from attending school by the virus pandemic.  The fellowship hall is filled with can goods, bags of chips and goodies and drinks.  Five local churches, along with local citizens, have provided $2,000 for food.  The local route man for a bread company donated loaves of bread.  The Bay Area Food Bank helped.

The effort is coordinated by Marty Coaker, who has driven a school bus for Fruitdale school for 32 years.  Food is provided for 109 students, all but eight of whom have meals delivered to their homes.  Ten volunteers, including one great-grandmother, make deliveries.  The deliveries are necessary because the area is so sparsely populated and both distance and lack of transportation hamper students and their families from getting to the church.

It is an amazing effort, one being repeated today in hundreds of communities around the state.  For instance, the same day I visited South Oak Grove I also stopped by the McIntosh Community Center on the other side of the county.  Volunteer Wesley Barnes, assisted by McIntosh High School principal Jamelle Sauls, ran this site distributing more than 100 “grab and go” lunches.

While thousands of volunteers and educators in Alabama are scrambling to meet the challenges of this momment, the Washington County school system is unique since it is the only rural system in the state also threatened financially by the prospect of a charter school opening there and cutting $2 million in funding from the existing system.

This charade has now gone on for nearly two years.  The state charter commission approved the Woodland Prep charter application on May 14, 2018.  The application was reviewed by the National Association of Charter School Authorizers who recommended that it be  denied.  They also recommended the same for LEAD Academy in Montgomery.

But Soner Tarim of Houston, who had management contracts for both Woodland Prep and LEAD, convinced the charter commission that NACSA did not know what they were doing, so both schools were approved.

LEAD Academy opened last August and has had anything but a smooth start.  Tarim is no longer working for them and according to the Montgomery Advertiser, LEAD owes him $76,000.  The Woodland Prep board has indicted they are now looking for someone else to manage their school.

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A letter was sent on Feb. 18, 2020 from charter commission chair, Henry Nelson, to the attorney for Woodland Prep stating that there would be a hearing on March 24, 2020 to consider revoking their charter.

However, this was postponed to April 20, 2020.  I can not find out who authorized this.  It was NOT an action by the charter commission.  I have twice asked by email both Nelson and Logan Searcy, state department staff person for the charter commission, who OK’ed this.  Neither responded.

So here we are nearly two years later and this mess drags on.  In addition to struggling to meet the hardships of the virus crisis we now face, in October Washington County schools will lose $700,000 in annual revenue when Power South closes a generating plant in Leroy.

And the chaos and confusion caused by an effort to open a charter school that has scant community support and is not needed still dangles over the head of this rural community.

(I have attended at least three meetings the charter commission has had with Woodland Prep.  I NEVER recall a single parent from Washington County showing up to speak for Woodland Prep.  Instead, it has either been Soner Tarim or attorney Nash Campbell pleading their case.  Since both have a financial interest in Woodland Prep, do they really want a school–or a paycheck?)

Even without the virus crisis, it is high time for the state charter commission to do what is right and put an end to this travesty.  And this crisis makes it even more so.

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Opinion | Alabama doctor: We’ve lost precious time and must act now

Dr. Anand S. Iyer, MD, MSPH

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Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this perspective are my own.

My home air conditioning unit broke this week. Worst possible time, right?

Fortunately, it was an outdoor problem, so the repair guy didn’t have to come inside.

When he approached the door to discuss the problem, I told him I was an intensive care unit doctor at one of the largest hospitals in the country who couldn’t risk any potential coronavirus exposures and asked him to stand as far away from me as possible.

He responded, “Think this whole coronavirus thing is real?”

The way that our political leaders have failed at handling this pandemic has seeped into the culture. This nonchalant attitude was modeled by Alabama’s leaders who acted like this could never happen in our state two weeks ago, by spring breakers enjoying themselves on the beaches despite pandemic warnings last week, and by my repair guy who was completely oblivious just a few days ago.

Political action was needed weeks ago when those of us in the medical community were sounding the alarm. We now have lost precious time, and the president is even considering loosening restrictions.

Meanwhile, my wife and I are planning how to isolate me away from my kids for the next several weeks, since my friends and I are anticipating placing many Alabamians on ventilators as we see severe cases skyrocket.

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Allow me to make one last plea for the state of Alabama.

Our state political leaders are doing the equivalent of sitting at the dinner table wondering if we should buy a weather radio for protection while a tornado is at the front door, and the president is about to let everyone go outside to play.

Time is of the essence. Please urge your leaders and Gov. Ivey to implement much heavier action in Alabama now. More shelter in place orders are needed across the state like what Birmingham did on Tuesday.

This is the minimum we need to give our state’s healthcare system the most essential commodity it needs right now – time.

Some people are doing great at social distancing and are taking this very seriously. I thank you for this. However, the average person is barely listening to even these simple requests.

Staying at home is the most basic way to flatten the curve. Loosen this recommendation any further as the president has suggested, and it will magnify the Alabama April 2011 tornado outbreak by several fold. Nine years later, this is our “James Spann with no suspenders,” “respect the polygon,” “once in a generation” moment, Alabama.

I urgently plead with our local and state leaders to quickly take the next steps needed to proactively protect all of us right now. Our healthcare systems need the valuable time to build capacity at a reasonable pace, figure out treatment options for this novel virus, and hammer out backup plans.

I see several other immediate priorities. At the national level, rather than waiting for corporations to pivot towards mask and ventilator making, we need to invoke and implement the Defense Production Act now to generate vital medical supplies to protect those of us on the frontline and our patients.

The outpouring of community support for making masks is amazing. We are grateful, but the federal government could make them to scale. My colleagues across the US are unsafely reusing masks, especially N95 masks that are supposed to be reserved only for those of us on the very front of the frontline. Please don’t hoard these masks. Rather, donate them to your local hospital.

At the state level, our leaders should ensure that rural and small-town hospitals, such as the ones in my hometown of Anniston, are adequately prepared with the supplies and communication structures needed to identify and ration critical needs and workforce. I know many aren’t ready. As the virus spreads quickly throughout the state, hospitals in rural Alabama will most surely run out of supplies unless we act quickly to help them. The federal government isn’t stepping up at the moment.

Finally, and at the very least, we need our leaders to be highly visible on television continuously urging citizens to stay at home every day. Other countries that have successfully controlled the pandemic have made this a priority and a natural part of all messaging that is being delivered. We should do the same.

Things will get bumpy in the next month, but we in the medical community are here to guide and protect you through this as best we can, Alabama.

I echo the urgency and recommendations of Dr. Anthony Fauci and Surgeon General Jerome Adams.

Please stay at home unless absolutely necessary.

Take care and be safe, Alabama.

Dr. Anand S. Iyer, MD, MSPH Pulmonologist and Intensivist, is a 2003 graduate of The Donoho School in Anniston.

 

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