Alabama House could vote on review of some habitual felony offender sentences

By: - May 16, 2023 6:59 am

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, speaks with a colleague prior to the start of the session of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. He was one of the few lawmakers who was critical of the bill reducing good time incentives for people incarcerated. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

A House committee Wednesday approved a bill giving people sentenced under the Habitual Felony Offender Act a chance of rehearing after several weeks of negotiations between lawmakers and criminal justice advocacy groups.

HB 229, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, creates a process where a group of people with long prison sentences can have their sentences reviewed by a judge.

“There are those rare occasions where someone can point out to you that there are some points of compromise,” England said to the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday.

The bill is scheduled to be up for a vote in the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday.

Alabama passed the Habitual Felony Offender Act in 1977, enhancing penalties for those convicted of felonies who had served time for felony convictions in the past. The law was revised in 2000 to offer judges more discretion in sentencing people with prior felony convictions.

England’s bill was intended to give people who had been sentenced under the law before 2000 the chance to have their sentences reviewed. As filed, the legislation would have limited reviews to people who are 50 years old or older; have served 15 years in prison, and had been convicted of a crime resulting in a physical injury to a person.

Supporters also said it would provide some relief to Alabama’s overcrowded prison system, which has helped make the state’s correctional facilities some of the most dangerous in the country.

England argued that point to the committee at a public hearing for the legislation back in April.  But the committee repeatedly delayed votes on the legislation.

During that time, negotiations were taking place behind the scenes to make the provisions more palatable. Some of those discussions involved not only the Attorney General’s Office, but also several lawmakers on the committee, especially Rep. Russell Bedsole, R-Alabaster.

“I personally want to commend Russell Bedsole because he has worked diligently on this bill through the entire process, to get himself comfortable, and he offered some amendments that make it a better bill,” England said.

The revised bill approved by the committee stripped the age and time served limits, and instead makes people eligible for review for those who were sentenced at their trials prior to May 26, 2000.

“The reason why that date is itself important is because it was the effective date of the habitual offender law that no longer required life without parole sentences for Class A felonies with three priors,” England said.

The provision increases the amount of time that people must spend in prison before they are eligible for a review. An inmate will have to have served at least 23 years in prison under the Habitual Offender Act before having their case reviewed.

The revised bill also requires a sentencing judge to consider objections by the victims and the use of a firearm in the offense while reviewing the case. The law enforcement agency that made the arrest leading to the convictionmust also be notified.

People who file the petition will have only one chance for a review without a chance of appeal. The legislation, if approved, would expire after five years.

Criminal justice reform advocates had been working to garner support for the legislation, especially Alabama Appleseed.

“We are pleased that these cases and this bill have really helped educate a number of lawmakers and others to see how broken some of our sentencing laws really are,” said Carla Crowder, Appleseed’s executive director.

The group hosted a rally advocating on behalf of the bill, bringing with them individuals who had spent decades incarcerated within Alabama’s prisons. This included Appleseed’s own, Ronald McKeithen, who had served 37 years before the organization won his release in December 2020, and now works with Appleseed as the re-entry coordinator.

“Since being out, I have contributed so much to the community,” he said at the public hearing on April 19. “I have held several art classes. I have talked to several universities.”

The U.S. Sentencing Commission published a report in 2017 that said rearrests, reconviction and reincarceration rates are lower for those who are older. About 4.1% of those who are older than 65 years old are rearrested compared to 39% of people who are between 21 years old and 24 years old.

Overall, the body appeared satisfied with the changes.

“I am thankful to be part of that process,” Bedsole said. “We saw an opportunity here with a bill that, certainly in its original format, wasn’t something that in my position as a career law enforcement professional, that I could see progress that way it was (written).”

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.

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