The Alabama House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday moved along a bill that would repeal the state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, seen by some as a heavy-handed law that removes judicial discretion and packs the state’s overfilled prisons.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said his House Bill 107 would change the state’s sentencing schemes that deal with people who have multiple convictions, and it would allow people currently serving under the state’s law a chance to have their sentences reviewed.
“It doesn’t guarantee them release, but it gives them the ability to have their sentence reviewed,” England said.
England’s bill would repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act and allow incarcerated people to apply and receive a review for parole once they’ve served 85 percent of their sentence. The House Judiciary in February sent the bill to a sub-committee for further work.
Alabama prisons rank fourth-highest in the nation for the percentage of incarcerated people who are serving either life without the possibility of parole, life with the possibility of parole or sentences of at least 50 years, according to a February report by The Sentencing Project.
Of the state’s 22,896 inmates, 502 were serving life without the possibility of parole under the Habitual Felony Offender Act, according to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ latest monthly report. The law also increases sentences for thousands more in Alabama’s prisons, with 21 percent of all convicted under the law serving 20-year sentences.
Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Mobile, in bursts of heated debate strongly voiced his opposition to the bill, arguing that it would take away the ability to enhance sentences for those convicted of multiple crimes. He also noted that the subcommittee did not recommend approval England’s bill.
“You’re saying no matter what they have done, you cannot consider their history in issuing a sentence,” Simpson said.
England said that because the Habitual Felony Offender Act exists “we have gotten addicted to it, as if it’s the only way we can manage our criminal justice system.”
“If we continue to indefinitely incarcerate people, we’re not going to have the space to incarcerate the people that need to be there,” England said.
The U.S. Department of Justice is currently suing Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards. Prison overcrowding has exacerbated the problem in Alabama’s prisons, according to the DOJ’s lengthy investigations and lawsuit.
Simpson said he understands the argument regarding overcrowding, but said “there are people that need to be in jail.”
After some heated comments from Simpson to England, House Judiciary Committee Chair and retired judge Jim Hill, R-Moody, attempted to address a point of law Simpson had mentioned, but was interrupted by Simpson.
“Mr. Simpson, excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me,” Hill said, attempting to regain control of the hearing.
Rep. Merika Coleman, D-Birmingham, spoke about the heated exchange, saying in her 20 years in the Legislature she’s never seen such a thing.
“This is absolutely ridiculous, and it serves nobody well for us to continue to go on in a committee like this,” Coleman said. “We are supposed to have a level of decorum in this body, because Mr. Chair, you were just disrespected.”
“I’m fine with that. I’m ready to take a vote,” Hill said.
Members voted 9-5 to give the bill a favorable report and send it to the full House for consideration.
Dillon Nettles, policy and advocacy director at the ACLU of Alabama, in a statement after the vote expressed hope the bill would ultimately become law.
“With legislation repealing the Habitual Felony Offender Act advancing in the Legislature, we are hopeful that lawmakers are finally taking the prison crisis and DOJ lawsuit seriously,” Nettles said. “It is past time for them to pass bold and transformative legislation like HB107 that would address the problems that are created when we warehouse people for decades, and we urge the rest of the House to join their colleagues in voting for a real solution to this urgent crisis.”