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Crime

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. 

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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. 

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“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

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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Courts

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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