Alabama legislators propose bill to suspend early release law until 2030
A prison corridor in Holman Correctional Facility in 2019. (File)
Five senators have filed a bill to suspend an early release law after a controversy over release of inmates who became eligible for the program last week.
The bill, sponsored by Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, would delay future releases until 2030, though most inmates who were eligible for release on Feb. 1, under the provisions of the law, have been let out. Those inmates were released under a 2021 law that made early release provisions in a 2015 sentencing statute retroactive.
“When this bill passed in 2021 originally, it was something that I was something that I was very much opposed to, and had concerns about the passage of,” Sen. Chris Elliott, R-Fairhope, the main sponsor of the legislation, said in an interview on Wednesday. “I fully intended to file a piece of legislation that would really press the pause button on the legislation, and to let my colleagues know how it was implemented and what the effects were, and to then study those effects prior to continuing to release inmates.”
The 2015 legislation established levels of early release for inmates based on time served. Those sentenced to no more than 5 years in prison could be released between 3 and 5 months before their official release. Those sentenced to more than 10 years in prison could be released 10 to 12 months before that person’s scheduled release date.
Sex offenders were not eligible for release under the law. Those released would have been subject to monitoring and parole requirements, and forbidden to own firearms. The law required victims to be notified.
The 2015 law only applied to future sentences under the law. The 2021 legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, made provisions of a 2015 sentencing reform law retroactive.
The bill had broad support from legislators in part due to the overcrowding of Alabama’s prisons, a major contributor to a tide of violence that has led to a lawsuit from the U.S. Department of Justice.
Under the 2021 law, inmates were scheduled to be released Feb. 1, but many were still in custody because the state failed to notify the victims of their release.
Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall filed a lawsuit against Department of Commissioner John Hamm seeking to stop the release until the victims of those scheduled to exit the prisons were notified.
Whose notification system was it?
The question was who had responsibility for notifying victims. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, a member of the House Judiciary Committee, expressed concerns that DOC had more than a year to notify victims, but didn’t.
DOC counsel Mary-Coleman Roberts said last week that DOC had not been tasked with creating the notification system.
“The victim notification system that was contemplated under the victim notification statute was supposed to be developed by Alabama Law Enforcement Agency,” she said. “It was never developed.”
Alabama Appleseed reported earlier this week the creation of the system had been stymied by the use of multiple notification systems by responsible departments and a lack of data sharing.
Roberts said DOC representatives met regularly with the Attorney General’s Office, ALEA, Pardons and Paroles and victims’ rights advocates on the issue and that the system did not exist.
“Under the victim notification system, the onus is on the victim to be registered to be notified,” Roberts said. “We notified everyone who had registered under that law. The commissioner was not going to let anyone out without victim notification, but we had no way to get the victim notification if the victim didn’t register in the system because everybody claimed that the information was privileged.”
Coleman said her staff worked through the weekend doing research to find the victims and notify them.
According to the suit, the list totals 412 inmates, but less than 20 victims had been notified at the time of the filing. DOC says that through Tuesday, at least 302 eligible inmates had been fitted with ankle bracelets and released from custody. As of November, DOC had 19,887 people in custody.
“As far as deciding blame, honestly, the system itself is broken,” England said. “To assign blame to individuals who were handed a responsibility that they couldn’t do because they were not given the tools to do it, it is probably shortsighted.”
Elliott’s bill would effectively suspend the early release law until Jan. 31, 2030. Elliott said he believed that would give the time to address the violence through the opening of new prisons under construction in Elmore and Escambia counties, and to create programs to address recidivism.
“When we do this retroactively, we are going back into the prison population which is 83% violent offenders,” Elliott said. “I mean that is what the population looks like because we have let everybody else out. So when you start looking at who is left in prison, it is 83% violent offenders.”
Elliott also said he wanted to use results from the release to test whether the program has worked.
“To really evaluate long term how the folks who have already been released under this current bill, how they are performing,” he said. “We are going to be able to look back and say … ‘how are these folks doing?’ If they are not doing so well, then I would like to push the pause button and say, ‘hold up’, let’s see if we can figure out a way in the next couple of years to do this better.”
The legislation does not provide a way to test that. And since most of the prisoners are out, some legislators are skeptical of the bill.
“Well, it is a little late,” said Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore. “I think they have already been released and it has been a year or more since the other bill passed. There’s probably a better way that DOC could have handled this, but it is what it is.”
England said he will vote no.
“Releasing individuals who are going to get out anyway is the best way to ensure public safety, reduce recidivism, and help those who have recently been released to have some, albeit small sometimes, some guidance and some assistance with getting back to normal life,” he said.
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