Advocates look to revive Alabama criminal justice reform bills
Driver’s license, Habitual Offender Act and parole legislation among priorities in coming session
Prison reform advocates hope to build on momentum from previous victories. (File/Getty)
Advocates for criminal justice reform plan to petition lawmakers to pass several bills, including new legislation and bills that failed last year.
Alabama Appleseed, the Southern Poverty Law Center and Alabama Arise expect to focus on reforms to driver’s license suspensions, parole grants and the state’s Habitual Offender Act.
“I think with each session there is a light level of optimism, but the reality is that things happen,” said Frederick Spight, policy director of Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
The reality is that some of their policy priorities face long odds because of structural issues that include an entrenched law enforcement voting bloc and more national attention toward crime. The organizations also must reckon with dozens of new faces in the Alabama Legislature.
“We are asking a lot of legislators to require them to become experts on everything, including this huge issue quickly,” said Katie Glenn, a senior policy associate with the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Addressing driver’s license suspensions has been high on the priority list for a few of the groups. One bill would stop the suspension of driver’s licenses for people who fail to pay court fines and fees, or those who don’t show up for a traffic court appearance regarding traffic cases.
The legislation prevents people from getting their driver’s license suspended if they made most of their payments for the year and allows them to miss one court appearance. It also makes it easier for people to have their license reinstated if they comply and appear in court.
Advocates argue that enforcing this rule is one of the most egregious problems with the system.
“We found, particularly people who are impoverished, lose their driver’s license, they lose a lot of access to society,” Spight said. “You have to realize during this particular time, especially during the pandemic, who are the ones who had to go into work — by and large they were the working poor.”
It also creates obstacles for those who were found guilty of a crime while trying to rehabilitate themselves, preventing them from visiting their probation officer, parole officer or a drug test.
Some didn’t realize they missed a court date, and continued driving without knowing they were forbidden from doing so.
According to Spight, Alabama Law Enforcement Agency numbers showed that as of early 2021, about 170,000 Alabama drivers had their licenses suspended for failure to pay or failure to appear. That’s the overwhelming majority of suspensions. By contrast, roughly 9,000 drivers had suspensions for accumulating points for things like driving under the influence or driving recklessly.
“When we think about criminal justice policies, is the punishment we are giving people, one, leading to either some sort of rehabilitation, or is it leading to correcting the behavior,” Spight said. “This issue only affects poor people. When you take that person’s driver’s license away, then that can lead to a whole other cascading effect of further involvement in crime.”
A bill filed last year to address these issues passed the Senate and the House Judiciary Committee but failed at the last minute on the House floor.
“A 13th hour email from the attorney general conflated Appleseed and other organizations that the office was in litigation with,” Spight said. “That resulted in the bill tanking.”
The attorney general’s office did not say last week whether it would challenge the proposal for this year’s session.
“We have not seen an actual proposal. Please ask us again later this month,” said Cameron Nixon, legislative liaison and deputy communications director for the Alabama attorney general’s office.
Advocates also want to address the state’s small rate of paroles. In the past, nearly half of those who have had their cases heard were granted parole. According to the Associated Press, 90% of parolee applications were rejected in the last fiscal year.
One bill would make the parole guidelines mandatory. Members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles would have to grant parole to those in prison if they met the benchmarks stipulating to their release. As of now, those guidelines are discretionary, meaning board members can deny parole, even if the person has met their parole requirements.
If the members still want to deny granting parole, then they must provide a reason in writing along with allowing people incarcerated to appeal their decision.
“All this bill says is that ‘hey, these are your guidelines, and you should follow them,’” Glenn said. “If you are not, if you have got a good reason not to, you have got to say why.”
The measure failed to get a full floor vote during the 2022 session.
“Since the bureau is not involved in the grant or denial process of parole, that statute is actually pretty clear that we can’t be, we just don’t have a position on that,” said Cam Ward, director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. “I am sure that board or the bureau, whatever laws that the legislature passes, we will follow.”
Habitual Offender Act
A third legislative priority focuses on changes to the state’s Habitual Offender Act or three strikes law.
The law, passed in 1977, originally increased punishments for those convicted of prior felonies, and mandated life in prison for those with three previous felony convictions convicted of a Class A or B felony. The Legislature revised the law in 2000 to give judges more discretion in sentencing those with three prior felony convictions.
Advocates support a bill that would offer those convicted under the three strikes law a chance to have their case reviewed. It would not apply to those convicted of homicides, sexually-based offenses, or crimes involving physical injury to the victim. Cases would be reviewed by the sentencing judge or the chief judge of the court, considering their record while incarcerated, educational accomplishments and data concerning recidivism rates for those over 50.
“There is an age curve to criminality,” Spight said. “It drops off at around 40 years old, and by 50 years old it is miniscule.”
It also includes a provision that the person must be 50 years old and have already served 15 years to be eligible.
“Our prison system is getting sued by the Department of Justice,” Spight said. “It has already been found to be unconstitutional. It is overcrowded and filled with violence. How do we lower the number of individuals who are there who honestly don’t need to be there. People who are there because of some substance abuse issue.”
The challenges include legislators opposed to reform, many of whom have some affiliation with law enforcement, and focuses on crime statistics.
“There is a segment of lawmakers who classify themselves as ‘tough on crime’ and are not interested in any legislation that would give someone a shorter sentence, that would allow someone for redemption or resentencing,” Glenn said.
The recent national spotlight on crime has also made it harder to push criminal justice reform, Spight said.
“Any sort of criminal justice reform that people could see as ‘soft on crime’ was going to be a challenge,” he said.
Advocates also say the attorney general’s office continues to challenge criminal justice bills within the legislature, more than others have in the recent past, who have opposed their efforts. Those who opposed their efforts made moral arguments to justify their position, that people who committed crimes should be punished.
“I think, at this point, anything that is deemed to be some sort of reform to the criminal justice system will probably have a more difficult time passing,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, a sponsor of criminal justice reform bills, said. “I think the political appetite in Alabama right now is more incarceration than it is for rehabilitation.”
Mike Nicholson, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise, said reform efforts face institutional obstacles.
“In general, in Alabama we have some issues when it comes to competing values, and the things that as citizens we support and oppose,” he said. “We have certainly made it clear in the way that we speak, and the way our legislators speak, that punishment is more important than rehabilitation when it comes to criminals or people who have been convicted of a crime. And that can be an obstacle when it comes to legislators, regardless of how they perceive a bill.”
Advocates point to recent victories, including a law providing people who have been arrested a 180-day grace period from paying mandatory fines and fees once they are released from custody.
“We are really glad this bill passed because it is going to give people who were released from incarceration six months to find stable housing, employment and healthcare before they have to pay those fines and fees,” Nicholson said.
Those leaving incarceration don’t have the means to pay because they don’t have employment. This bill allows them the chance to get settled without the danger of having additional fines levied that cause their balances to increase.
“A lot of people in the statehouse already realize that we want people to be successful,” Spight said. “We don’t want people to recede back into the prison system.”
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