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Ivey’s prison study group recommends spending, anti-recidivism efforts, goes light on sentencing reform

Eddie Burkhalter

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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. 

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“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.

 

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Crime

Seven inmates, seven workers test positive for COVID-19

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Alabama Department of Corrections on Tuesday said in a statement that seven more prison workers and seven additional inmates have tested positive for COVID-19. 

Four workers and one woman serving at the Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women all tested positive for coronavirus, according to an ADOC press release. There are 16 confirmed cases among staff at the facility. 

The woman serving at Tutwiler prison continues to be asymptomatic and was tested pre-operation for a scheduled surgery, according to the release, which states she has been moved to “medical isolation” and the dormitory where she was housed has been placed on on level-one quarantine, meaning inmates will be monitored for symptoms and have temperature checks twice daily. 

Other positive test results came back for a worker at Ventress Correctional Facility, another at the Alex City Community Based Facility and Community Work Center and one at the Birmingham Community Based Facility and Community Work Center, according to ADOC. 

Four inmates at the St. Clair Correctional Facility who also tested positive for COVID-19 were living in the same small area within the prison’s infirmary as an inmate who previously tested positive for the virus, according to the release. That living area remains on level-two quarantine, meaning inmates remain there for all daily activities, and the entire infirmary at St. Clair remains on level-one quarantine.

One inmate at the Kilby Correctional Facility and another at the Frank Lee Community Based Facility/Community Work Center also tested positive for  COVID-19. 

The man serving at Kilby prison was housed in the facility’s infirmary, and was transferred to a local hospital after showing symptoms of the virus, where he tested positive, according to ADOC. Kilby’s infirmary has been placed on level-one quarantine.

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The inmate at Frank Lee developed symptoms of COVID-19 and was taken to the Staton Correctional Facility to an area under level-two quarantine, where he subsequently tested positive, according to the department. He was then taken to medical isolation at Kilby prison,  and the facility was placed on level-one quarantine. 

There have been 68 confirmed cases among prison workers in the state, while 17 have since been cleared to return to work. 

Ten of the 19 confirmed COVID-19 cases among inmates remain active, according to ADOC. As of Monday the state has tested 176 of Alabama’s approximately 22,000 inmates, according to the department.

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Crime

Alabama Democratic Party chair: “Where systemic racism endures there are no winners”

Eddie Burkhalter

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The Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party on Monday called for Alabamians to come together to address systemic racism and inequality in the wake of the death of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis. 

“I am angry and I am hurt. Unfortunately, I am not shocked,” said state Representative and  Chair of the Alabama Democratic Party Chris England, in a statement. 

“Inequality pervades every facet of our society. Confronting this truth is difficult, especially for those who have never experienced their race as an issue. For Black people, watching George Floyd be killed on camera felt not only horrifying, but familiar. It felt familiar because we know what it is like to be harassed by an officer or made to feel unwelcome in a certain part of town. We know what it is like for our schools, neighborhoods, and economic concerns to be ignored outright,” England continued. 

“I stand with each person who is fighting for the just and fair treatment of every Alabamian. Until ideologies rooted in racism and hate are confronted head-on, communities of color will suffer. Until we expose the lies keeping us divided, communities who do not experience their race as an issue will continue misdirecting their frustrations, and scapegoat communities of color. Where systemic racism endures there are no winners, only losers. 

“Unity demands justice. I call on every Alabamian, especially people of faith, to be on the frontlines of love and compassion. We have not come this far to only come this far.”

Two days of peaceful protests in Birmingham turned violent early Sunday morning, and Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin declared a state of emergency and enacted  a city-wide curfew to prevent a repeat of the rioting that saw numerous business burned and at least two reporters attacked.

Gov. Kay Ivey on Monday announced the authorization of Alabama National Guard members, but said it was no immediate need to activate them.

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Crime

Alabama attorney general signals end to fight over Birmingham’s Confederate monument

Eddie Burkhalter

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Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall on Monday said the city of Birmingham would get a one-time $25,000 fine if city officials remove the Confederate monument in the city’s Linn Park, which, if done, would bring an end to a years-long battle between state lawmakers and local officials in Alabama’s largest city.

The monument was at the epicenter of a riotous protest early Monday morning, following peaceful protests in the city late Sunday over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis.

Rioters attempted unsuccessfully to tear down the monument, and later burned businesses and attacked at least two journalists.

“The Alabama Monuments Preservation Act provides a singular avenue for enforcement — the filing of a civil complaint in pursuit of a fine, which the Alabama Supreme Court has determined to be a one-time assessment of $25,000. The Act authorizes no additional relief,” Marshall said in a statement Monday. 

“Should the City of Birmingham proceed with the removal of the monument in question, based upon multiple conversations I have had today, city leaders understand I will perform the duties assigned to me by the Act to pursue a new civil complaint against the City,” Marshall continued. “In the aftermath of last night’s violent outbreak, I have offered the City of Birmingham the support and resources of my office to restore peace to the City.”

Marshall’s statement came after Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin earlier on Monday said that he planned to remove the Confederate monument and pay a fine rather than witness more chaos.

Woodfin on Monday also declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew. 

Following the white supremacist rally in Virginia in 2017, some Birmingham City Council members wanted the Confederate monument in the park torn down. 

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Instead, former Birmingham Mayor William Bell had the monument covered by plywood, and a year later, after Randall Woodfin replaced Bell as mayor, the Alabama Legislature passed a law forbidding the city — and all municipalities in the state — from removing or altering a Confederate monument.

The law imposes a $25,000 fine for each violation. 

Comedian Jermaine “Funnymaine” Johnson on Sunday called for demonstrators to tear down the monument.

Johnson told Al.com on Monday that he hated to see the protest turn violent, and said he never encouraged violence but does still call for the monument’s removal. 

“If you think I incited violence, you don’t think monuments like this and the policies behind it haven’t incited violence for decades, you just need to think again,” Johnson told Al.com.

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Crime

Birmingham mayor declares emergency, city-wide curfew after violence

Eddie Burkhalter

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Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin on Monday declared a state of emergency and a city-wide curfew after violent protests early Monday morning that saw businesses burned and journalists attacked. 

Birmingham will be under a city-wide curfew from 7 p.m. to 6 a.m. beginning Monday evening. Anyone not at home or at work during those hours could be arrested, Woodfin said. The curfew is to remain in effect indefinitely, as city officials monitor the situation, he said. 

“George Floyd is a name that we all know now, not just in the city of Minneapolis, not just in the city of Birmingham, not just in America but the world,” Woodfin said, referencing the killing of Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis that’s sparked protests across the country. 

There were many protestors who worked with the city to conduct peaceful protests in recent days, Woodfin said, but there were also local looters and anarchists bent on causing chaos and damage late Sunday into early Monday. 

“I want you to know that I 100 percent support civil disobedience. That is very different from civil unrest,” Woodfin said. “I support activism and your right to peacefully assemble. I don’t support mobs of people destroying things just because.” 

Woodfin said because of the violence he’s called for a citywide curfew, and plans to have the Thomas Jefferson statue at the Jefferson County Courthouse, which was vandalized Monday morning, removed despite a state law that makes doing so illegal.

He’d rather pay that fine than see continued civil unrest connected to it, he said. 

“That means no more parade or vigils. No more demonstrations,” Woodfin said of the citywide curfew. 

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Woodfin also asked that anyone with video evidence or knowledge about the attack of two journalists early Monday morning to turn that evidence in. 

“You saw innocent people in the media get physically assaulted and did not do anything,” Woodfin said, and asked those who video the violence and looting to call Crime Stoppers at 205-254-7777 and arrange to turn in those videos. 

“These two journalists deserve some form of being made whole, because what happened to them was not right. They didn’t deserve it,” Woodfin said 

Birmingham Police Chief Patric Smith during the press conference said 14 businesses reported burglaries and 13 had extensive damage, and that those numbers are likely to increase as more reports come in. The department is reviewing video from the protests to identify those who committed the crimes, he said. 

“This police department intends to follow up,” Smith said 

“The Birmingham Police Department will be out in force. While we do not want to make arrest. I think you’ve placed us in a position to whereas we will,” Smith said. 

There were also 22 fire calls, 5 of them at commercial buildings, three house fires and  multiple car and dumpster fires, Birmingham Fire Chief Cory Moon said. Twenty-four people were arrested in connection with the protests, Woodfin said. 

“What happened last not will not define the city of Birmingham,” Woodfin said. “How we respond and move forward. How we embrace each other as one community. If we’re going to be for justice, let’s be for justice and let’s cut everything else out.” 

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