On Thursday the long-awaited policy recommendations of Gov Kay Ivey’s bi-partisan Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy were released, which include suggestions on spending, sentencing reform and recidivism reduction.
The group, formed in July and required to release its recommendations before the Legislative session begins Tuesday, didn’t always agree on every topic up for consideration, wrote the group’s chair and former Alabama Supreme Court Justice, Champ Lyons, but all agreed on the urgent need to act quickly.
Alabama is facing the threat of a federal lawsuit over prison conditions after the U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report that found the violence in the overcrowded and understaffed prisons are likely violations of inmates’ Constitutional protections.
“If we try to adhere to the status quo and decline to spend necessary funds to improve the situation now, we risk burdensome remedies imposed by a federal court—remedies that could be far costlier to the State than some of the proposals that have been discussed in our Study Group and that are available to us now at lower cost,” Lyons wrote in the report.
The state’s prison crisis will likely be a central topic during this year’s legislative session. At a budget presentation earlier this month Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner Jeff Dunn requested a $42 million increase in his department’s budget during Fy 2020, for a total of $563 million.
A central issue with ADOC operations inmate-on-inmate violence, according to the report. The group suggests that lawmakers during the 2020 legislative session should revisit a bill sponsored last year by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that would require ADOC to report certain information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Taskforce.
“As the State’s lawmaking body, the Legislature should receive the information it reasonably needs to take a more active role in addressing DOC’s challenges,” Lyons wrote in the report.
The study group also suggests that lawmakers increase ADOC’s budget, and noted specifically the importance of dealing with contraband inside prisons. Drug overdoses have become a regular occurrences in state prisons.
“Regarding contraband detection, in particular, we must further pursue effective means of ensuring that inmates who arrive with addictions get treatment—and that inmates who do not arrive with an addiction do not become addicted while incarcerated,” the report reads.
The study group declined to take on larger sentencing reform measures, and instead suggested that lawmakers consider reinstating a 2001 law that would allow some people serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual offender Act to ask the courts for relief. Prior to the law’s repeal, so-called “Kirby motions” would let some inmates convicted of nonviolent crimes to appeal their sentences.
“We believe that the Legislature should reinstate Kirby motions so that other nonviolent offenders sentenced to life without parole may have a similar avenue to obtain relief—assuming, of course, that such relief is warranted by the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated,” the study group’s recommendation reads.
Approximately several hundred inmates serving for nonviolent crime convictions imposed before Oct. 1, 2013, would have much lighter sentences were they to be sentenced to the same crimes today, according to the report, which also recommends some previous sentencing reforms be made retroactive.
“As a matter of basic fairness, it would seem appropriate to allow an inmate in this category a chance to go before a judge and ask to be resentenced—assuming, again, that the inmate’s disciplinary record while incarcerated would warrant that relief,” according to the report.
Additionally, the group suggests that lawmakers consider allowing those serving life without the possibility of parole under the state’s Habitual Offender Act for Class a violent felony convictions, but for crimes in which no one was physically injured, to ask the court to reduce their sentence to life with the possibility of parole.
“As is the case with Kirby reinstatement, no immediate and dramatic reduction in present prison population will be achieved through reforms such as these. But they could result in fairer sentences and some reduction in the prison population without a corresponding threat to public safety—both goals that are worthy of pursuit,” the report reads.
In an effort to reduce the chances that people return to prison after being released, the study group suggests increased funding for in-custody educational programs and early release for those serving for non-violent crimes who complete educational training.
Members also recommended that lawmakers consider offering pre-release supervision to inmates who were sentenced after 2015, the year a law was enacted that required such supervision, which Lyons wrote can help keep a person from returning to prison once freed.
Another stumbling block for formerly incarcerated people is the difficulty of getting government-issued photo ID’s after release, so the group recommends that legislation making that easier.
“By doing so, we can remove a barrier to the successful reintegration of inmates into society—and thereby increase the likelihood that they will become productive, law-abiding citizens,” Lyons wrote.
Formerly incarcerated people on parole often work odd hours, and because parole officers typically work daytime office hours that makes it difficult to meet the demands of the state.
“These parolees thus find themselves in a catch-22: They are trying to better themselves and society by working; but by working, they are more likely to violate the terms of their parole,” Lyons wrote. “To resolve this catch-22, we believe the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles should change the work schedules of its parole officers to provide greater access on nights and weekends. This change could meaningfully reduce the number of parolees returning to prison and at the same time support parolees as they seek to transition to lives of productive citizenship.”
The study group also believes that ADOC should redesignate existing leadership positions to jobs that would oversee recidivism reduction efforts.
An expansion of an existing program aimed at getting county jail inmates help with mental health problems could keep them from being re-arrested, the study group’s report found. Called the Stepping Up Initiative, the program provides money for local governments to hire mental health case managers.
The last recommendation in the report is for further study of alternative courts, such as drug courts and pretrial diversion programs, both of which can help divert people from entering the prison system.
“There are several alternative courts and diversion programs across the State that work extremely well and help divert people from further illegal activity,” Lyons wrote. “But in many places, these programs are unavailable, underfunded, or simply inaccessible. There are also serious concerns about the “pay-to-play” aspect of some of these programs.”
Study group members were unable, however, to come up with specific solutions to address the need for expansions of these programs, Lyons wrote, in part because the many programs operate under various entities, in both state and local governments.
“We therefore recommend legislation to require better data collection by government agencies administering these programs. We also recommend the establishment of a legislative study commission to dig deeper into the specific issues surrounding community corrections so that this issue can be comprehensively addressed in the 2021 legislative session,” Lyons wrote.
Inmate assault injures two St. Clair prison correctional officers
The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries.
Two correctional officers at St. Clair Correctional Facility were injured in an inmate-on-officer assault on Monday, the Alabama Department of Corrections confirmed to APR.
Among the two officers who sustained non-life-threatening injuries was a basic correctional officer (BCO), a position created in May 2019, who are not Alabama Peace Officers Standards and Training Commission (APOST) certified and who cannot transport inmates, work perimeter fencing or in towers.
The other officer injured was a full correctional officer, Alabama Department of Corrections spokeswoman Samantha Rose told APR in a message Friday. The assaults happened at approximately 7:30 p.m. and both officers were taken to a local hospital and treated for those non-life-threatening injuries and subsequently released, according to Rose.
“The ADOC condemns all violence in its facilities, and the actions taken by the inmate against ADOC staff are being thoroughly investigated,” Rose said. “As the investigation into this incident is ongoing, we cannot provide additional detail at this time. More information will be available upon the conclusion of our investigation.”
The ADOC created the new basic correctional officer position to bolster the state’s woefully understaffed prisons. The creation of the position was also at the suggestion of experts ordered by a federal court to study the department’s staffing problems, ADOC attorneys wrote to the court in a filing in 2019.
The ongoing lawsuit is over the state’s handling of mental health in prisons.
The Southern Poverty Law Center and the Alabama Disability Advocacy Program filed the 2014 suit arguing the state was indifferent to the health of inmates dying by suicide in greater and greater numbers.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs in June argued that ADOC was far behind on the court-ordered hiring new additional officers. It has been more than two years since U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson ordered the Alabama Department of Corrections to hire an additional 2,000 correctional officers by 2022.
U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson in a previous opinion wrote that prison understaffing “has been a persistent, systemic problem that leaves many ADOC facilities incredibly dangerous and out of control.”
“Taken together, ADOC’s low correctional-staffing level, in the context of its severely overcrowded prisons, creates a substantial risk of serious harm to mentally ill prisoners, including continued pain and suffering, decompensation, self-injury, and suicide,” Thompson’s previous opinion continued.
The SPLC in court filings late last year expressed concern over the use of basic correctional officers in Alabama’s overcrowded and understaffed prisons. ADOC attorneys have argued to the court, however, that BCO’s are adequately trained to do their jobs and are needed for the department to hire the necessary number of officers per the court’s timeline.
In a court filing on Thursday, attorneys for the plaintiffs asked the court not to again delay site visits to Alabama prisons by two experts who are tasked by the court to determine which positions should be filled by correctional officers and which by BCO’s and which by another new position, called cubical correctional officers, who are to have no direct interaction with inmates.
Those visits were to begin in May, but both parties in the suit agree to wait due to the COVID-19 pandemic and the threat it posed to the experts, who are particularly vulnerable to the disease due to “age and other factors,” according to court records.
Both parties again agreed to postpone those visits in June for those same reasons, those records show. ADOC seeks a third extension but attorneys for the plaintiffs argue that the experts can visit the prisons while keeping themselves, prison staff and inmates safe from harm of COVID-19 and that thousands of employees and contractors enter Alabama prisons daily.
The plaintiff’s attorneys argue in the court filing that the expert guidance is needed because ADOC wishes to use BCO’s and cubical correctional officers to comply with the court-ordered hiring of additional staff by Feb. 20, 2022.
“Ensuring adequate staffing is of upmost importance to address the constitutional violations underlying mental health care within ADOC,” the plaintiffs’ attorneys wrote to the court Thursday.
ADOC in May was employing 494 BCO’s, a 57 percent increase in the number of BCO’s employed in Oct. 2019, according to ADOC’s staffing numbers. The number of correctional officers working in Alabama prisons fell by two percent during that time, dropping from 1,319 to 1,287.
Governor announces $219,000 in grants for ALEA
A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Gov. Kay Ivey’s office.
Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday announced $219,764 in grants to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) to bolster the state’s oversight of those convicted of sex offenses.
A $168,975 grant will be used toward a federally mandated sexual offender registration and residency program, according to Ivey’s office. Sexual offenders must register and report where they live after being convicted, and the funds will aid law enforcement officers in verifying those placed on the registry are meeting those requirements.
An additional $50,789 grant is to be used to transition to a more comprehensive crime reporting system by a federally mandated 2021 deadline, according to Ivey’s office.
The new system will provide more detail about crimes, including the type of weapons used and characteristics about the location of crime, such as if it occurred in a rural or urban area.
“Protecting communities from sexual predators and reporting accurate records of crime statistics are high priorities for all law enforcement in Alabama,” Ivey said in a statement. “I commend ALEA for its commitment to making sure it stays in compliance with federal laws and working to close cases on known offenders.”
The U.S. Department of Justice grants will be administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs (ADECA).
“ADECA joins Gov. Ivey in supporting ALEA’s efforts to protect our communities from sexual predators and to make it easier for law enforcement agencies to share vital information with each other,” the director of ADECA, Kenneth Boswell, said in a statement.
Opinion | A gruesome murder should point Montgomery in a new direction
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either.
The facts of 17-year-old Luna Pantaleon’s death are hard to stomach. The Montgomery teen was beaten with a metal pole and left to drown in a ditch. Her face was so badly beaten, with so many facial fractures, that the exact cause of her death couldn’t immediately be identified.
Her alleged killers are three 16-year-old girls. They reportedly went to McDonald’s after the murder and had smoothies.
Those details were provided during a court hearing on Wednesday as reported by the Montgomery Advertiser. They are enough to cause you to pause while reading to take a deep breath. But these details are not the only ones that should get attention.
The testimony of a Montgomery police detective who investigated the crime, and who interviewed the three girls who have essentially admitted to the crime, provided other disturbing details that paint a picture of the lives of Montgomery’s underprivileged youth — lives filled with violence and firearms, with late-night fights and “hits” put out on houses by 10th graders.
This reality for many young people in Montgomery isn’t exactly a hidden secret.
I can’t tell you the number of homeless teenagers I spoke with or tried to help while in Montgomery. I can’t tell you the number of conversations I had with middle schoolers who were in gangs, and who spoke openly about carrying handguns and other semi-automatic weapons.
Don’t get me wrong. Montgomery is not the wild west, and every poor, Black person in the city isn’t part of a gang or spending their nights shooting at each other.
But there is a level of violence and bad behavior that is growing and taking root in many communities. And it is happening because too many young people in those communities see no other viable alternatives.
A never ending cycle of poverty and despair — a cycle that has lasted, in some cases, for multiple generations — has left them turning to other means of getting by, of finding love and acceptance, of finding guidance no matter how misguided that guidance might be.
And every bit of it can be traced back to one problem: education. Or, in Montgomery’s case, the lack of it.
Segregation was common in all of Alabama in the 1950s and ’60s, but few cities in America clung to it as tightly as Montgomery did. When the Brown v. Board decision came down, private schools in Montgomery started to pop up — at one point a record number of them. And as the population grew, so too did the cities and the school systems surrounding Montgomery.
In 2020, Montgomery’s private schools are more than 90 percent white. Montgomery’s public schools are more than 95 percent Black. Those numbers have not changed much over the years.
But even more problematic is that Montgomery’s public schools are also serving a disproportionate amount of low-income students. That most of the poor people in Montgomery happen to be Black is a simple byproduct of the racism that saw Black citizens denied work, denied decent business loans, denied home loans for certain areas and denied acceptance into most state universities.
And having a high number of low-income students means fewer resources, fewer involved parents and more students who struggle through no fault of their own, because working parents weren’t home to help with homework, or they don’t have internet service. It goes on and on and on.
Now, repeat those problems for a few generations. And, well, you get the idea.
Exacerbating the problem for Montgomery, though, is a screwed up funding structure that has left its schools funded at the state’s lowest allowable levels. There will be an opportunity for Montgomery residents to fix that during Tuesday’s election by voting to increase property tax rates in the county.
It is money that is desperately needed. But that money alone will not solve the issues. Because we’re way too far down the line at this point for a few dollars to fix what’s broken in Montgomery.
It’s going to take the entire community putting aside their differences and their finger-pointing and their hate and actually working towards solving the problems, instead of just constantly pointing them out. It’s going to require a bunch of people to stop believing that skin color somehow makes a child less worthy of a quality education or more likely to be a criminal.
Mayor Steven Reed and several others have done a remarkable job to this point bringing together groups of people who have historically opposed any tax increases for the schools. He’s going to have to build on that goodwill going forward.
Because while more money will certainly make a difference, it won’t put a parent in place. It won’t assure kids are getting quality medical care and mental health care. It won’t put food on the table at night or turn the broadband on.
There will need to be more education options opened up for adults. There will need to be more comprehensive options available in some communities. This will take time and money, and it won’t be easy.
But here’s the one thing I know: the overwhelming majority of people in this world, and in Montgomery, want to succeed. They want to take care of themselves and their children. They want their kids to receive a decent education. They want a good job and to pay their bills and sleep easy at night.
If you show them a pathway to such a life, they will take it.
The city didn’t arrive overnight at a place where 16-year-old girls are drinking smoothies after a gruesome murder, and the road out of it won’t be a short one either. But passing this tax increase, and the community-wide dedication to this cause that it represents, is a damn fine start.
Alabama Constable Association: Amendment 2 could defund constables statewide
Amendment 2, if approved, would delete language protecting how constables are funded statewide.
If Amendment 2 on the Nov. 3 ballot is approved by Alabama voters, it could pave the way for an end to an office in Alabama with a history in the U.S. that dates back to the 17th century, according to the Alabama Constable Association.
Chauncey Wood III, president of the Alabama Constables Association, reached by phone Monday, referred a reporter to a pending press release from the association. Jonathan Barbee, constable for Jefferson County and the association’s spokesman, said in the statement Monday that the association is concerned with several aspects of Amendment 2.
If approved, the amendment would process numerous changes to the state’s judicial system, including a change that would allow Alabama Supreme Court, rather than the chief justice, to appoint the administrative director of courts.
It would also increase the Judicial Inquiry Commission from nine members to 11 and would allow the governor, rather than the lieutenant governor, to appoint a member of the Court of the Judiciary. The amendment would also prevent automatic disqualification from holding public offices for a judge solely because a complaint was filed with the Judiciary Inquiry Commission. Additionally, it would provide that a judge can be removed from office only by the Court of the Judiciary.
Amendment 2 would also “delete certain language relating to the position of constable holding more than one state office,” and Barbee, in his statement, explained that the amendment could defund Constables statewide if counties chose to do so.
“Constables are not taxpayer-funded, they are largely voluntary Peace Officers,” Barbee said. “The fees they collect from their duties as Officers of the Courts allow them to support the expenses of the office such as vehicles, uniforms, and equipment. Amendment 2 also deletes the language protecting how Constables are paid by private court fees, leaving it in question for the appointed Administrator to decide.”
In Alabama, constables are elected peace officers and act in many of the same ways as do sheriff’s deputies. They’re able to make arrests, serve court papers and provide security for parades, funerals and the like.
Amendment 2 was sponsored by Alabama Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. Orr, in a message to APR on Monday, said that the portion of the amendment dealing with constables was drafted by an Alabama Law Institute committee, headed at the time by the institute’s deputy director at the time, Clay Hornsby. Orr referred questions about the matter to Hornsby.
David Kimberley, acting deputy director of the Alabama Legislative Services Agency’s Law Institute, told APR that he took over as acting deputy director since Hornsby’s departure on Aug. 1.
If the amendment is approved by voters, Kimberley said that a county that wants to keep their constable can do so, but that the amendment is an acknowledgement that there are few constables left in the state and it’s approaching becoming “an archaic position or office.”
“It was noted that only 24 out of the 67 counties currently have constables. Most of all the services of constables are duplicated sheriff’s deputies,” Kimberley said. “And it was essentially just an acknowledgement of what seemed to be a gradual phase out of this office in the state of Alabama.”
Read Barbee’s full statement below:
The Alabama Constables Association has joined other law enforcement and conservative groups in urging voters to vote “NO” on Amendment 2 in the general election on November 3rd.
Constable Jonathan Barbee, the Association’s Public Information Officer, said in a statement:
“We’re very concerned about several of the parts of Amendment 2, starting with the overall size and complexity of the Amendment. Typically, proposed constitutional amendments deal with only one or at most a few issues. Amendment 2 proposes SIX different changes to the State Judicial System, some of which drastically change the way we do things in Alabama.
“Amendment 2 could harm small communities by allowing county district courts to discontinue having municipal courts in cities with populations of less than 1,000. Municipal courts are typically held at night, making it easier for working people to attend. Without these small municipal courts, residents would have to spend most of a day at the county seat, losing a day of work or being forced to burn a vacation day for something that now is usually settled in an evening. It also indirectly attacks and defunds the Police departments of these towns, because their city courts are a significant source of revenue to help keep Officers on patrol. This part of Amendment 2 strikes at our small communities, drawing power to the larger county seats.
“Amendment 2 also removes the ability of the Legislature to impeach Judges, making the unelected, unaccountable to the people, Court of the Judiciary as the only body that can remove a Judge from the bench. Every citizen in Alabama should be concerned about this, because it effectively takes away their ability, acting through their elected representatives in the Legislature, to remove a bad Judge from their position.
“Amendment 2 allows Judges to continue working when complaints are filed against them with the Judicial Inquiry Commission. We understand that automatically removing a Judge just because a complaint has been filed can lead to problems and abuses of the system, but these can be settled in a timely manner by the JIC. The alternative, which Amendment 2 will create, would allow Judges who need to be removed to continue hearing cases, and give them a legal basis for fighting their removal. We believe this has the potential for much more serious problems to arise within our courts.
“Amendment 2 could also defund Constables by removing our ability to serve as Constables while also working in another position with the State or County. Constables are not taxpayer-funded, they are largely voluntary Peace Officers. The fees they collect from their duties as Officers of the Courts allow them to support the expenses of the office such as vehicles, uniforms, and equipment. Amendment 2 also deletes the language protecting how Constables are paid by private court fees, leaving it in question for the appointed Administrator to decide. This could effectively defund the Office of Constable statewide, which removes the protection and services Constables provide in their communities at no cost to the taxpayers of Alabama. Over the last year, at least two Constables were responsible for saving several lives during medical emergencies, Constables in Jefferson County have been helping with traffic control and schools, and one Constable assisted with a large drug interdiction arrest. We feel this is an unnecessary and unwarranted attack on the oldest elected law enforcement position in the nation.
“There are other problems with this Amendment. Amendment 2 mandates that the entire Alabama Supreme Court, instead of the Chief Justice, appoint the Administrative Director of Courts. It would be a change from having a single elected, accountable official being responsible for this appointment to having it done by committee. Once the Administrator is appointed they could, in fact, serve a lifetime appointment. Amendment #2 would also remove the ability of Alabama’s elected Lieutenant Governor to appoint one member of the Court of the Judiciary, giving that ability and more control to the Governor, who already appoints two members.
“Many of these points are not easy to find, because the forces behind this Amendment have purposefully omitted them from the official documentation provided to the Alabama Secretary of State’s office. If for no other reason than this deliberate obfuscation of the true contents of this Amendment, it should be voted down. The people of Alabama deserve better than this attempt by special interests to radically change how our state’s Judicial system works, mostly as a smokescreen to hide how they will use it to protect bad Judges, inconvenience small-town residents, and make citizens across the state less safe.
“We urge the voters of Alabama to vote ‘NO’ on Amendment 2.”