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Alabama pastors, faith leaders call on state to enact meaningful criminal justice reform

Eddie Burkhalter

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A group of Alabama pastors urged state lawmakers in a letter Wednesday to work on meaningful criminal justice reform to fix Alabama’s broken prison system and to help prevent young people from entering it.  

Joining the 40 pastors who signed the letter was Craig DeRoche, senior vice president of advocacy and public policy with Prison Fellowship, a Christian nonprofit based in Washington D.C. that advocates for criminal justice reform. 

DeRoche, in a message to APR on Wednesday, said that his organization supports investment in new and existing prisons in Alabama with the goal of facilitating better living conditions, and the expansion of programming, treatment, education, job training and faith-based initiatives.

“We do not support new facilities or investments meant to maintain or grow the unnecessary or ineffective use of incarceration in the justice system,” DeRoche added. 

Plagued with violence and contraband in overcrowded and understaffed facilities, Alabama’s prison crisis will be a major focus for legislators this session. The U.S. Department of Justice in April 2019 released a report calling Alabama’s prisons likely in violation of inmates’ Constitutional protections. 

Gov. Kay Ivey in her State of the State speech Tuesday continued to push her plan to build three new mega-prisons for men, through a build-lease partnership with private companies at an early estimated cost of $900,000. 

Ivey was less specific Tuesday, however, on support for other measures, such as additional sentencing reform or expansions of educational opportunities and programs to reduce recidivism. 

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DeRoche told APR that his organization is hopeful that Alabamians will embrace the opportunity to improve public safety while reducing the use of incarceration.  

“Alabama should look to retroactive sentencing reforms, such as the ones President Trump enacted in the federal First Step Act and other meaningful reforms to expand access to diversion programs and specialty courts,” DeRoche said. “Over the last ten years, many states across the nation have demonstrated the ability to face similar challenges, including Texas, which has saved millions of dollars and closed a record number of prisons. We believe that Alabama should make comprehensive criminal justice reform its priority.” 

State officials haven’t yet announced where those three new prisons might be  located, but DeRoche cautioned against consolidating many smaller prisons and moving incarcerated persons to larger prisons further away from their communities. 

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 “Locating smaller prisons closer to where the crime occurred and the prisoners’ families live, has been shown to improve public safety over large, centrally located facilities. As we learn more about the Governor’s approach to solving Alabama’s prison crisis, we would like to better understand the basis and viability of the prison proposal,” DeRoche said. 

The letter to state legislators reads: 

“As pastors and leaders of faith-based organizations that minister and provide services in Alabama, we join together to write you in support of youth and adult criminal justice reform and restoration of citizens who were formerly incarcerated. Because the good news of Jesus Christ calls the Church to advocate for biblical truth and care for the vulnerable, we, His followers, call for a criminal justice system that is fair and redemptive for our young people and restores adults who are reentering society. We believe we all have received and deserve a second chance in life.

“When young people commit delinquent acts, it damages our communities and requires proportional accountability measures. However, it is equally important that when we punish, we also provide opportunities to make amends, and offer young people who commit crime avenues to build personal character and gain back the trust of the community. The recommendations of the Alabama Juvenile Justice Task force are a substantial step in this direction.

“Likewise, for those who are returning to the community we also need to provide opportunities to make amends and offer adults who have committed crime a path to redemption. This includes offering a second chance to earn back the trust of the community and to restore themselves to their neighbors as productive and peaceful members of society.

“The United States Department of Justice recently issued a report detailing the troubling state of affairs in Alabama’s adult prison system and concluded “there is reasonable cause to believe that the men’s prisons fail to protect prisoners from prisoner-on-prisoner violence and prisoner-on-prisoner sexual abuse, and fail to provide prisoners with safe conditions.” The disturbing findings in this report must be remedied and juvenile justice reform is necessary to avoid placing young Alabamians in the failing adult prison system.

“As our churches and organizations work to reach Alabama communities with a message of hope and redemption, we ask you to consider the following guiding biblical principles as you work to change the youth justice system and criminal justice system:

  • Each human being, including those who commit crime and the victims of crime, is a person made in God’s own image, with a life worthy of respect, protection and care;
  • Accountability for youth crime should be community-based and local where possible, recognizing that cultivation of the seedbeds of virtue like families and churches pays dividends in reducing crime;
  • Punishment should be proportional to the act committed, advancing public safety, fostering accountability, and giving opportunities to make amends;
  • Appropriate avenues should be provided for personal transformation and a second chance;
  • Rehabilitation of those formerly incarcerated should include, where not prohibited by public safety concerns, restoration of the rights and privileges previously lost in order to foster their ability to become productive citizens and taxpayers in society

“As we work to preach the good news of the gospel, that redemption through Christ is available to everyone and that His sacrifice covers our sin, we ask that you take hold of these important values and usher in a new season of youth and criminal justice in Alabama.” 

The letter was also signed by: 

  • Rt. Rev. Derek Jones, Bishop, Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy
  • Anglican Church in North America in Montevallo.  
  • Dr. Douglas A. Sweeney, Dean, Beeson Divinity School at Samford University
  • Dr. Timothy George, Founding Dean, Research Professor of Divinity Beeson Divinity School, Samford University
  • Pastor Randy Walker, Correctional Ministry Pastor, Church of the Highlands in Birmingham. 
  • Pastor Ken Letson, Senior Pastor, The Church at Shelby Crossings in Calera, Alabama. 
  • Pastor Dr. Matt Mobley, Senior Pastor, Mulder Memorial United Methodist Church in Wetumpka. 
  • Rev. Dr. Gerald R. McDermott, Anglican Chair of Divinity Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. 
  • Rev. Michael Novotny, Rector, Christ the King Anglican Church in Birmingham. 
  • The Very Rev. Andrew M. Rowell, Rector, Christchurch Anglican, Dean of the Western Deanery, Gulf Atlantic Diocese, ACNA in Montgomery. 
  • The Ven. Woody Norman, Archdeacon, Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy, Anglican Church in North America, in Hoover. 
  • Rev. Walter Albritton, Pastor Emeritus, Saint James United Methodist Church in Montgomery. 
  • Wetumpka, Alabama, Rev. Douglas McCurry, Rector, Legacy Anglican Church in Montgomery. 
  • Rev. Doug McMillan, Former Vicar, St. Michael’s Anglican Church in Andalusia. 
  • Rev. Cn. Mark Quay, Rector, St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Tuscaloosa. 
  • Dcn. Andrew Brashier, Vicar, Anglican Church of the Good Shepherd, Chancellor, Jurisdiction of the Armed Forces and Chaplaincy in Pelham. 
  • Rev. Clay Farrington, Executive Pastor, Riverchase United Methodist Church in Hoover. 
  • Rev. Kyle Clark, Vicar, St. Bede’s Anglican Church in Birmingham. 
  • Rev. Dr. Cory Smith, Senior Pastor, Auburn United Methodist Church in Auburn. 
  • Rev. Dr. Gary W. Yarbrough, Chaplain/Director of Pastoral Care, Shelby Baptist Medical Center in Alabaster. 
  • Rev. Cameron Nations, Associate Rector, Saint Luke’s Episcopal Church in Birmingham. 
  • Rev. Keith Stanley, City Ministries Pastor, The Church at Brook Hills in Birmingham. 
  • Rev. Geoff Hatley, Rector, St. Andrew’s Anglican Church in Madison. 
  • Rev. Ben Jeffries, Vicar, Good Shepherd Anglican Church in Opelika. 
  • Rev. David Tubbs, Senior Pastor, Good Shepherd United Methodist Church in Madison. 
  • Rev. Brian K. Blackwell, Pastor, Saint Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Birmingham. 
  • The Rev. Mark E. Waldo, Jr., St. Michael & All Angels’ Episcopal Church in Millbrook. 
  • The Rev. Katie Nakamura Rengers, Interim Staff Officer for Church Planting, The Episcopal Church, Canonical Residency: Alabama
  • Rev. Yvonne B. Howze, Pastor – United African Methodist Episcopal Church in Fairfield. 
  • The Rev. Gary Blaylock, Rector, St. Francis at the Point Anglican Church in Fairhope. 
  • Rev. Dr. Matt Burford, Founder, Tactical Faith, Inc. in Pelham. 
  • Rev. Lydia Temonia, Pastor, Tabernacle, United Methodist Church in Dothan. 
  • Dr. Brian V. Miller, Senior Minister, Aldersgate United Methodist Church in Montgomery. 
  • Dr. Rob Couch, Lead Pastor, Christ United Methodist Church in Mobile. 
  • Rev. Dr. Patrick M. Quinn, Century UMC, Lead Pastor in Pike Road. 
  • Rev. Kathy Jorgensen, Associate Pastor, Dauphin Way UMC in Mobile. 
  • Pastor Randy Smith, Ranja Ministries in Birmingham. 
  • Pastor Janice Smith, Ranja Ministries in Birmingham. 
  • Dr. Christopher W. Crain, Executive Director, Birmingham Metro Baptist Association in Birmingham. 
  • Andy Blake, Executive Director, WorkFaith Birmingham in Birmingham. 
  • Rev. John Ryberg, Pastor, The Table UMC in Huntsville.

Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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Corruption

Former State Sen. David Burkette pleads guilty, avoids jail

Josh Moon

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Former Alabama Sen. David Burkette

Former State Sen. David Burkette will avoid jail time and be sentenced to a 30-day suspended sentence as part of a plea deal reached on Monday. 

Burkette, who pleaded guilty to one count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act, will also have to pay a $3,000 fine and serve 12 months of probation as part of the deal. He was sentenced in Montgomery Circuit Court on Monday after being charged two weeks ago with failing to deposit more than $3,600 in contributions into campaign accounts — a misdemeanor.

He also resigned his seat in the Alabama Senate as part of the plea deal. 

“I’m just happy to still be here,” Burkette told the court following his sentencing, according to multiple media reports. 

The former senator suffered a stroke in 2018 and has been confined to a wheelchair since. His current health status played a role in his sentence considerations. 

The charges against Burkette stem from a series of complaints filed against him with the Alabama Ethics Commission — all of them related to various issues during his time on the Montgomery City Council. The charge for which he pleaded guilty occurred in 2015.

The Ethics Commission referred numerous charges to the Alabama attorney general’s office, according to sources familiar with the investigation of Burkette, but the attorney general’s office elected to charge Burkette with only the misdemeanor as part of the deal that saw him resign. 

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“Candidates for public office at the state, county and municipal levels must comply with the State’s Fair Campaign Practices Act,” said Attorney General Steve Marshall. “Personally profiting from campaign funds erodes public confidence in the system and will not be tolerated.”

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Legislature

Former state senator arrested on charges of violating campaign finance laws

Josh Moon

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Former State Sen. David Burkette

David Burkette has been officially arrested. The former state senator from Montgomery, who resigned on Tuesday as part of a plea deal with the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, was formally charged on Thursday with a single misdemeanor count of violating the Fair Campaign Practices Act. 

According to a press release from the AG’s office, Burkette’s charge stems from him depositing campaign donations into his personal account instead of into his campaign accounts, as required by the FCPA. The alleged crimes occurred in 2015 and 2016 when Burkette was serving on the Montgomery City Council. 

The complaint alleged that, in 2015 and 2016 while running for the Montgomery City Council, Burkette intentionally failed to deposit $3,625.00 in campaign contributions into his campaign checking account, and instead, deposited or cashed those contributions into or against his personal bank account,” the AG’s release stated. 

The single misdemeanor charge is surprising given the lengthy list of allegations against Burkette submitted to the Alabama Ethics Commission. APR obtained a copy of the original report, which was submitted in October 2018. 

In addition to more than $40,000 in allegedly improperly spent council discretionary funds that were flagged by auditors for the city of Montgomery, Burkette was also accused of inappropriately donating tens of thousands more to suspect charities and two sororities, including his wife’s.

The Ethics Commission referred Burkette’s case to the AG’s Office in October 2019.

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Legislature

Pro-Growth Conference kicks off with Doug Jones, discussions on COVID impact and a living wage

Josh Moon

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Sen. Doug Jones speaks on the floor of the U.S. Senate. (VIA CSPAN)

What happens if you just give impoverished citizens $500 per month — no strings attached? Good things, it turns out. The people use that income to buy food, medicine and basic necessities for life. They take a day off work if they’re sick and actually get treatment. They quit a second, hourly-wage job that they are overqualified for and instead work towards obtaining a better, higher-paying primary job. 

These are things that the city of Stockton, California, has learned in its year-long living wage program.

The program, while limited in size — only 125 people — has proven to be a larger success than city officials had hoped, and it has opened their eyes to a new, more proactive style of governance, Stockton Mayor Michael Tubbs told Alabama elected officials. 

Tubbs was the featured speaker on Tuesday at the first day of the Pro-Growth Policy Conference, a three-day forum for Alabama elected leaders with guest speakers from around the country offering tips and best practices. 

The first day of the conference began with an opening talk from Sen. Doug Jones, who pressed the need for Medicaid expansion and how expansion has aided other red states. Jones also highlighted the need for broadband expansion and talked about a bill he has in the Senate that would create a broadband main office and dish out about $20 million in money for affordable access.

“Now (with COVID), we know how needed it really is,” Jones said. “We see the homework gap that we have. We know there’s a need for more telemedicine. My bill would consolidate in one office all of the monies for broadband … and provide affordable access.”

Jones said the current COVID pandemic has highlighted just how badly we need better access to broadband in Alabama, and a major area of concern right now is healthcare. 

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Highlighting that point, Brandon Garrett, the chief operating officer of the National Minority Quality Forum, and Dr. LaTasha Lee, the vice-president of social and clinical research, demonstrated the many ways in which inequality in health care and health care options is harming impoverished communities. 

A number of factors play into that inequality, but a lack of access to updated means of communication and tools is one of the biggest. 

“(Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.) said that, ‘Of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane because it results in physical death,’” Lee said. “That’s what we’re seeing currently with COVID-19 and sickle cell disease. These two diseases are affecting the minority community and causing death, and they make a great argument that such health care disparities really are a social justice issue.”

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Correcting such issues was one of the goals of Stockton’s living wage experiment. Now, Tubbs said, a working person can afford to stay home or get tested if they’re feeling symptomatic, whereas before that person — scared of missing a paycheck or losing the job altogether — might come to work with the virus and infect an entire workplace. 

That alone, Tubbs said, has restored dignity to a number of residents. 

“This is not easy, especially with budgets the way they are,” Tubbs said. “But I don’t know how we continue to live with the status quo as it is.

“I think part of being a leader, as we are, is having the courage to do something about what we’re seeing. We have to be able to do that.”

The Pro-Growth Policy Conference will run both Wednesday and Thursday, 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. Wednesday’s round of conferences will focus on state grants, economic development around the state and what the 2021 legislative session might look like. 

On Thursday, the event will wrap up with talks by the Equal Justice Initiative’s Bryan Stevenson and Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell.

 

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Elections

Russell Bedsole wins Republican runoff in HD49

Brandon Moseley

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House District 49 Republican nominee Russell Bedsole

As of press time, it appears that Russell Bedsole has won a narrow victory over Mimi Penhale in the special Republican primary runoff election in Alabama House District 49.

At press time, Bedsole had a 166-vote lead in unofficial results on the secretary of state’s website.

“We won,” Bedsole declared on social media.

Bedsole is an Alabaster city councilman and a Shelby County Sheriff’s Department captain.

“Sadly, tonight did not turn out in my favor. Despite the loss, I feel like God truly used this opportunity to help me grow in my walk with Him, and gave me the opportunity to increase my testimony,” Penhale said. “I feel so incredibly blessed by the people I have met on this campaign and the experiences I have had. I am disappointed in the outcome, but what an honor it is to have the confidence of 1,183 people across House District 49! Thank you!!”

Russell Bedsole had 1,249 votes, or 51.36 percent, to Mimi Penhale’s 1,183, or 48.64 percent, to win the House District 49 Republican primary runoff.

There were just 2,432 votes cast in the special primary runoff election. Shelby County was the decisive factor in the election. Bedsole won Shelby County with 762 votes, or 71.42 percent, to Penale’s 305 votes.

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Penhale carried Chilton and Bibb Counties, but could not overcome Bedsole’s strong performance in Shelby County.

The provisional ballots will be counted on Sept. 8, 2020, and certification of votes will occur on Sept. 16, 2020.

Bedsole will face Democratic nominee Sheryl Patton in the special general election on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2020.

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The vacancy in House District 49 was created when State Rep. April Weaver announced her resignation to accept a presidential appointment as a regional director in the Department of Health and Human Services.

In a statement, the Alabama Republican Party thanked “each of the candidates that qualified for offering themselves up for service in the Alabama State House of Representatives.”

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