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Bills could improve access to diversion programs, report notes high fees and roadblocks

Eddie Burkhalter

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Bills recently introduced in the Alabama House and Senate aim to improve access to specialized courts and diversion programs, meant to get people the help they need and keep them from behind bars. 

Even with more access to those programs and courts, however, many can’t afford the exorbitant fees to remain free, according to a report released this week by an Alabama nonprofit criminal justice reform advocacy group, which also found racial disparities and a lack of critical information on outcomes. 

Sen Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told APR on Wednesday that his bill would help provide access to those programs to people who live in smaller communities, which don’t have the money to afford them, by allowing judges to transfer municipal cases to circuit and district courts that do. 

Each participant – the defendant, the municipal court and the county court – would have to agree to transfer a case, according to the legislation. 

“You increase the opportunities for diversion, and smaller towns don’t have it,” Ward said. “It gives them a chance to avoid going to prison or going to jail.” 

In order for a presiding circuit judge to transfer a case, all parties would have to agree to do so, and the defendant would have to qualify for the drug court, mental health court, veteran’s court or diversion program, according to the bills. 

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, introduced the House’s version of the bill. Attempts to reach Hill on Wednesday were unsuccessful. 

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The legislation promises a way out of serving time in county jails and prisons for low-level crimes, but even with more access, many of those programs are too costly for participants to afford, according to a report released Monday by Alabama Appleseed, which in 2018 and 2019 surveyed 1,011 people who had participated in those specialized courts and diversion programs. 

What researchers at Alabama Appleseed found was that most people in those programs are poor, making less than $14,999 a year, and paid a median of $1,600 for those diversion programs, or more than 10 percent of their income. 

“Close to half used high-cost payday or title loan,” according to the report. “More than eight in ten gave up a necessity like food, rent, or prescription medication.” 

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Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, in a message to APR on Wednesday said that to the extent that the legislation expands access to diversion, it looks like a step in the right direction. 

“But so much more is needed. Real reform of Alabama’s inconsistent patchwork of diversion programs means no one is excluded because they’re too poor to pay all the fees, or cannot take off work, or have small children to care for. And our research found all of these scenarios are far too common

Crowder said that there’s also concern that the change could create new revenue streams for the various entities involved, which could result in more hardships for vulnerable low-income people charged with crimes. 

“Oftentimes new diversion programs spring up as a way to collect money from vulnerable people desperate to stay out of jail or prison. The last thing we need is more of that,” Crowder said. 

Ward told APR that there are good points raised in the Appleseed report, and while he doesn’t agree with all of the report’s suggestions for fixes, he does believe there’s room for improvement.

Among the report’s recommendations for legislators is to “Establish and enforce uniform statewide standards for all diversion programs and alternatives to incarceration.” 

Ward agrees, and said the state has “a sporadic nature of diversion programs. Some counties that work great, some not so much. Some, it’s a pay-to-play system.” 

“I do think some of these are absorbing, so I think Appleseed was correct on that,” Ward said. 

Ward also said there needs to be more uniformity among the many different specialized courts and referral programs, and he agrees with the report’s finding that there needs to be more transparency on the outcomes of such programs. 

Read the full report here

Among the the reports findings are: 

Disturbing Racial Disparities

In 2018, the Alabama Department of Corrections had 20,585 inmates in its custody population. Of those, 43 percent were white, while 56 percent were black. 

The same year the population of Community Corrections programs was nearly 60 percent white and 40 percent black. 

“The disparity between the racial demographics of the population in custody, who must bear the violence, danger, and misery of Alabama’s prisons, and the racial demographics of those in Community Corrections, who enjoy a measure of liberty, is striking,” the report reads. 

High fees

In Baldwin County, 18 months in a pretrial diversion program can cost a person  $3,010. 

The report notes that in Lee County, traffic cases can be disposed of through pretrial diversion for $673, DUIs are $1,183, while felony drug offenses cost $1,713. 

“Participants deemed poor enough for an appointed attorney can be required to pay an additional $500 in appointed attorneys fees, pushing the total cost for a felony above $2,000,” the report reads. 

Of those polled by researchers 57 percent said they’d gone without food to pay to remain in the programs, 30 percent said they’d forgone paying on medical bills or for medication to do so and 12 percent said they failed to pay child support due to the costly programs. 

“42% admitted to committing a crime to pay diversion costs and fees; 29% sold drugs; 24% stole,” the report reads. 

Lack of data, roadblocks to success 

“Alabama does not maintain any data on drug courts. The state does not maintain information about demographics, cost to participants, criminal charges, recidivism rates, length of time in drug court before graduation or termination, or any other data that would permit researchers, legislators, judges or anyone else to assess the efficacy of its drug courts.” 

Researchers noted in the report that there is an employee of the Administrative Office of Courts who is doing some of that research, but that it’s unclear if that data, if completed, will be made public. 

The difficulty of getting to required drug court appearances is exacerbated because “people are required to plead in to and attend drug courts in the jurisdiction where they are charged, not the jurisdiction where they live.” 

One man, whom researchers witnessed at a drug court in Marengo County, had to drive from his home in Etowah County to get to the court, a 364-mile round trip. 

“For drug court participants who don’t have licenses or who lack access to a vehicle of their own, this is a terrible obstacle, even an impossible one,” the report reads.

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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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Alabamians for Fair Justice urges lawmakers to repeal habitual offender law

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Tuesday in Montgomery, over a hundred advocates for criminal justice reform will urge Alabama lawmakers to adopt reforms to help alleviate Alabama’s prison crisis. Alabamians from across the state will push for major changes that would help make prison sentences proportionate to the crimes committed, prevent people convicted of minor offenses from going to prison, and provide needed supports for people re-entering communities.  Today, Alabama’s prison are roughly 170 percent over capacity with staffing levels at 30 percent. 

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) warned Alabama that the conditions in the male prisons likely violate the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment against cruel and unusual punishment.  The DOJ letter found Alabama’s prisons do not protect people from violence, sexual abuse, and fail to provide safe living conditions.  Alabama’s prison system was also found to have “persistent and severe shortages of mental-health staff and correctional staff, combined with chronic and significant overcrowding,” in in 2017 state-wide ruling in Braggs v. Dunn

“It is important for Alabama to see the people behind the prison walls,” said  LaTonya Tate, executive director and founder, Alabama Justice Initiative.  “These are real fathers, mothers, sons, daughters, wives and husbands behind every excessive prison sentence. Lawmakers need to understand that incarcerated Alabamians, their families, and their supporters are constituents too. Their voices matter.”

The lobby day is organized by the Alabamians for Fair Justice (AFJ) coalition.   

AFJ’s legislative priorities includes:

  • Repealing Alabama’s “three strikes” law, also called the Habitual Felony Offender Act, or HFOA.  About 6,000 people in Alabama are serving escalated sentences based on prior offenses, often committed as teenagers. The law permits a Life Without Parole sentence for a single Class A felony if someone has a prior minor drug or property conviction.  About 500 Alabamians are sentenced to die in prison for non-homicide crimes under this law.
  • Reducing sentences for marijuana possession.  Each year, nearly 1,000 people face felony convictions for marijuana possession, a “crime” that is legal for nearly half of the population in the United States.  Alabama spends roughly $22 million tax dollars per year to enforce possession laws.     
  • Making the 2013 sentencing guidelines retroactive.  The 2013 presumptive sentencing guidelines were a major contributor to Alabama’s prison population declining.  Now, hundreds of people sentenced before 2013 still serve longer sentences than they would face if sentenced now – and for nonviolent crimes. AFJ asks for the Legislature to apply the same guidelines to people convicted prior to the new guidelines.
  • Overhaul the state’s community corrections, diversion, and alternative court programs to make them more accessible, especially to people without money, and more accountable to the taxpayers of Alabama.  Currently, these programs have no uniform standards, lack necessary oversight, and are funded by the participants.  
  • Reform the state’s parole system.  Roughly nine out of every 10 people up for parole were denied since Governor Kay Ivey appointed Charles Graddick as the director of Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.  If this rate continues, ACLU of Alabama estimates the state prison population will increase by 3,700 people due to the dramatic drop in paroles being granted. 

Alabama spends about $500 million in tax dollars each year for over 20,000 people in custody, yet the state’s prisons remain dangerous, overcrowded, and understaffed. 

Governor Ivey’s main solution to Alabama’s unsafe prisons is to spend $2.6 billion taxpayer dollars “lease” three new mega-prisons that would be built by a private, for-profit corporation.

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“When you have the worst prisons in the country, the solution is not to build more. The solution is to enact smart, commonsense reforms to provide treatment, services, and alternatives in communities and keep people out of prison,”  said Tate.

 

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U.S. Attorney Jay Town to serve as working group co-chair on presidential commission

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via WHNT

U.S. Attorney Jay E. Town will serve as a Co-Chair of the Criminal Justice System Personnel Intersection Working Group on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice.  The working group will examine how police, judges, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and correctional authorities intersect so that the system of criminal justice can enhance its ability to prevent and control crime and serve the victims of crime.

“I am humbled and honored to serve as working group Co-Chair on the Presidential Commission on Law Enforcement and the Administration of Justice,” Town said.  “The Criminal Justice System Personnel Intersection Working Group will address a multitude of issues seeking to broaden the relationships between every layer of law enforcement, improve relations between the community and the justice system, and find innovative ways to reduce crime as a result.  I look forward to joining my colleagues in this incredibly important and collective effort to help this Administration identify effective and systemic criminal justice reforms that will reduce and prevent crime in America.”

On October 28, 2019, President Donald J. Trump signed Executive Order No. 13896, authorizing and designating the Attorney General to create such a Commission that would explore modern issues affecting law enforcement that most impact the ability of American policing to reduce crime.  Attorney General William P. Barr announced the establishment of the Commission on January 22, 2020.

The Executive Order instructs the Commission to conduct its study by focusing on the law enforcement officers who are tasked with reducing crime on a daily basis. It also directs the Commission to research “important current issues facing law enforcement and the criminal justice system,” and recommends a variety of subjects for study, such as, but not limited to:

  • The challenges to law enforcement associated with mental illness, homelessness, substance abuse, and other social factors that influence crime and strain criminal justice resources;
  • The recruitment, hiring, training, and retention of law enforcement officers, including in rural and tribal communities;
  • Refusals by State and local prosecutors to enforce laws or prosecute categories of crimes;
  • The need to promote public confidence and respect for the law and law enforcement officers; and
  • The effects of technological innovations on law enforcement and the criminal justice system, including the challenges and opportunities presented by such innovations.

In studying these issues, the Commission will be assisted by “working groups.”  These working groups will consist of subject matter experts across the federal and state government and have a particularized focus on distinct issues the Commission will review (e.g. “Technology”).  They will assist and facilitate the Commission’s study of these issues, and provide advice and counsel on their specific subject.  The working groups, which will include our federal partners from the Departments of Homeland Security, Health and Human Services, Interior, Agriculture, Housing and Urban Development, and other federal agencies, will provide much needed expertise and insight on the important issues affecting law enforcement.  This Commission requires a team effort.  Such a rich variety of federal and state government participation is essential to the work at hand.  Once the Commission completes its study, it will recommend the best measures to empower American law enforcement to combat the criminal threats of our time, and to restore the utmost public confidence in our law enforcement to protect and serve.

In forming the Commission, the Department of Justice has marshaled together the expertise and experiences of all sectors of the law enforcement community—urban police departments, county sheriffs, state attorneys general and prosecutors, elected officials, United States Attorneys, and federal law enforcement agencies.  They come from distinct states, cities, counties, and towns across the country but share a common mission of safeguarding their respective communities from a variety of threats.

The year 2020 marks the 150th anniversary of the Department of Justice.  Learn more about the history of our agency at www.Justice.gov/Celebrating150Years

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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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