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ACLU releases “State House to Prison Pipeline” evaluation of legislative session

A significant portion of bills introduced in the Alabama Legislature aim to intensify the criminal legal system’s punitive measures.

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In Alabama’s 2023 Legislative Session, lawmakers introduced an unprecedented 876 bills. The ACLU of Alabama’s 2023 State House to Prison Pipeline Report reveals a concerning trend: 141 of these bills aimed to intensify the criminal legal system’s punitive measures.

These proposed laws sought to amplify penalties, extend sentences, and erect barriers for Alabamians reentering society post-incarceration.

JaTaune Bosby Gilchrist, the ACLU of Alabama’s executive director, criticized the legislative focus: “Alabamians deserve a legislature that passes bills to fund our public schools, expand access to quality healthcare, and improve their lives,” she said. “Not a legislature focused on funneling them into overcrowded and deadly prisons.”

This statement highlights the ACLU’s stance on redirecting legislative priorities.

This year marks the third consecutive ACLU analysis of Alabama’s legislative trends. The criteria for a bill’s inclusion in the prison pipeline encompass criminalizing behaviors or actions, increasing penalties or carceral spending, and expanding police presence in daily life. The ACLU identified 94 House bills and 47 Senate bills fitting this definition.

Highlighted in the ACLU report were several bills: the Gang/”Criminal Enterprise” Bill (HB191/SB143), the Loitering Bill (HB24), the Good Time Bill (SB1), the Parole Denied Bill (HB131/SB97), and the Absentee Ballot Assistance Bill (HB209). Except for the latter, which passed the state House but not the Senate, these bills represented steps toward expanding the carceral system.

Bosby Gilchrist noted the broader implications and contradictions of these legislative efforts. The report pointed out the expansive nature of the legal definition of “criminal enterprise,” which could technically encompass college Greek life.

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Despite numerous punitive bills, the Legislature failed to pass any significant criminal legal reform. The ACLU report highlighted two bills by state Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, that were not advanced. House Bill 14 sought unanimous jury verdicts for death sentences, and House Bill 16 proposed establishing a Criminal Justice Policy Development Council to oversee the Alabama Board of Pardon and Paroles.

Alison Mollman, legal director at the ACLU of Alabama, said: “For the last three years, the ACLU has analyzed all the bills introduced each legislative session, focusing on their primary objectives. Our findings reveal a disturbing trend: the Alabama legislature is more committed to bills that enhance the criminal punishment system and prolong incarceration than to addressing critical issues like expanding health care and funding public schools, which are of real concern to Alabamians.”

Mollman further commented on the political motivations driving legislation, adding: “Much of what we observe in the legislature boils down to politics and attention-grabbing issues. Legislators are keen to appear tough on crime, a stance that has repeatedly been rewarded at the polls. This has made policies focused on increased incarceration and extended prison terms a pathway to political success in Alabama.”

She questioned the allocation of funds for prison construction.

“Alabama is diverting $100 million from education and $400 million from COVID relief funds to build billion-dollar prisons,” she said. “Investing these funds in expanding rural health care, Medicaid, and education would be far more beneficial to Alabamians. Instead, we’re witnessing an unwarranted emphasis on enlarging the prison system.”

Mollman praised legislators like England for proposing sensible bills, focusing on public safety and parole accountability. But she lamented the lack of progress on reform bills: “Each session, we see bipartisan agreement on the need for reform, but legislators get sidetracked by highly politicized bills that consume entire sessions, leaving little time for addressing issues that truly matter.”

She also highlighted the challenges faced by reform bills in advancing beyond committee stages, recognizing Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, for his efforts in the Judiciary Committee to bring meaningful reform to the table.

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“Representative Hill has made significant efforts in the Judiciary Committee to bring meaningful reform to the table, often ensuring that bills like those of Representative England are considered,” Mollman said. “However, these reform bills struggle to advance beyond committee stages.”

Addressing the criminal enterprise bill, Mollman expressed concern over its First Amendment risks and potential for misuse, as seen in states like Arizona.

“Our goal is to steer legislators towards actions that enhance the lives of everyday Alabamians,” she said. “Unfortunately, the past three legislative sessions have been dominated by bills that are likely to exacerbate difficulties for our citizens.”

The ACLU of Alabama’s 2023 State House to Prison Pipeline Report sheds light on a troubling trend in Alabama’s legislative session. A significant portion of the 876 bills introduced were aimed at expanding the punitive reach of the criminal legal system, emphasizing increased penalties and longer sentences.

This approach starkly contrasts with the pressing needs of Alabamians for improved public services like education and healthcare, according to the ACLU’s study. This trend, underpinned by political motivations and a lack of comprehensive criminal justice reform, highlights the urgent need for a legislative shift towards common-sense policies rather than policies that incarcerate, and policies that invest in the welfare of all Alabamians.

Bill Britt is editor-in-chief at the Alabama Political Reporter and host of The Voice of Alabama Politics. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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