The Alabama House on Tuesday approved a bill that makes retroactive a 2015 law, expanding the number of incarcerated people who could be released prior to the end of their sentence and placed under supervision.
The House voted 58-38 to send Republican Rep. Jim Hill’s bill to the Senate for consideration.
The 2015 law, one of a series of criminal justice reform bills approved that year, sets mandatory release for some incarcerated people to serve the remainder of their sentence, from 12 months to two years prior to the end of sentence, under the supervision of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. House Bill 72 ses that people convicted of crimes prior to the 2015 law’s enactment would also fall under the same mandatory, supervised release.
Hill explained prior to the vote that as it stands today, those people covered under his bill would be released by running out their sentence and would not be supervised. His bill, as amended Tuesday, would require Pardons and Paroles to assess how stringent supervision should be for a person being released early, and to provide that supervision.
The House also approved an amendment, requested by the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and introduced by Republican Rep. Proncey Robertson, that would delay enactment of the law until Jan. 2022. Robertson said the bureau asked for the amendment to give time to prepare to supervise more formerly incarcerated people.
Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, proposed an amendment, which was approved by the House, that would reduce the time of early release for those sentenced to 10 years or more from 24 months prior to the end of their sentence to 12 months prior to the end of their sentence.
Jones said during the 2015 reform work showed that the maximum impact on reducing recidivism was whether they received “at least one year supervision.”
“My reason for the change is that they don’t need to be released out 24 months,” Jones said, adding that 12 months supervision upon release maximizes supervision “without releasing them too early.”
Some Republican representatives spoke against the bill, voicing opposition to releasing anyone before the end of their sentence.
Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, expressed his concern with the bill, and said that judges at the time of sentencing may not have anticipated they could be released up to two years early.
“I would differ with that,” said Hill, a retired circuit judge, adding that at the time of sentencing judges would understand that most people get paroled.
Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Good Hope, spoke about Nathan Winston Stevens, a Cullman man arrested in Oct. 2020, and charged with stabbing an Alabama man to death after Stevens was paroled on a previous burglary conviction.
“I don’t know the answer, but this guy slipped through the cracks,” Harbison said.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, noted that Hill’s bill doesn’t shorten sentences, but rather requires supervision for some who are released early, and who may be returned to prison if they violate the terms of that supervision.
Some feel as though making sure people serve the entirety of their sentence makes us safer, England said.
“If incarcerating everybody, and letting them serve their entire sentence makes us safer then we should be the safest place on Earth, because we incarcerate more than anybody does,” England said.
England said that once the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, and county jails, which continue to hold larger numbers of state inmates, release those people to state prisons “our prison population is going to be right back close to where it was in 2015 when we passed all these bills.”
“We’ve got a federal court system ripping our system apart,” England said, referring to a U.S. Department of Justice Lawsuit alleging violations of Alabama inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards.
“Eventually, they’re going to look at us and say, you know, you’ve been doing the same thing over and over again. Now it’s time for the federal court system to make you do what we think you should, and do you know what that could end up looking like?” England asked.
“I’ve got a pretty good idea,” Hill said.
“The same stuff we could have been doing right now on our own, and we’re arguing about letting someone out 10 months earlier so they have a little bit of supervision so they don’t reoffend,” England said.
The DOJ in July 2020, released a report detailing why the federal government believes systemic use of excessive force within Alabama’s prisons for men violates the Eighth Amendment. The report follows the DOJ’s previous report released in April 2019, that found that Alabama’s prisons for men were likely violating inmates’ rights to protection from sexual abuse and physical harm.
Severe overcrowding and understaffing contribute to the “patterns or practices of uses of excessive force,” the July report states. Alabama’s 13 mens’ prisons as of January held 6,000 more inmates than capacity allowed.
“The severe and pervasive overcrowding increases tensions and escalates episodes of violence between prisoners, which lead to uses of force,” the report reads.