Criminal justice reform advocates see mixed results in Alabama Legislature

Driver’s license bill passed, bill criminalizing absentee ballots beaten back, but others failed to get through

By: - June 9, 2023 7:01 am
The American flag behind a chain link fence

The American flag flying at Holman Correctional Facility on Oct. 22, 2019 (FIle)

For criminal justice reform advocates, the 2023 session of the Alabama Legislature was a mixed bag.

Groups managed to push through a bill limiting courts’ ability to suspend driver’s licenses for missed payments or court dates. Other bills they opposed failed to pass.

But few other priority measures gained traction in a year when the Legislature looked to enact laws that either created new penalties or made punishments under existing laws more severe.

“What we are getting a lot of times is that individual members may have something happen in their district, or happen to someone they know or love, and they want to bring a law that is going to be universal instead of something that is going to be specific to their area,” said Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro.

Among them was SB 1, sponsored by Sen. April Weaver, R- Brierfield, that reduced the amount of corrective incentive time, or good time, that inmates could receive for good behavior while incarcerated.

Corrections assign good time credit to inmates based on the class they are in. Weaver’s bill reduced good time incentives for those at the highest level from 75 days for every 30 days of good behavior to 30 days. The next lowest class went from 40 days of good time to 15 days and from 20 days to five days for those in the third class.

The bill was a response to the death of Bibb County Deputy Sheriff Brad Johnson, who was shot while in pursuit of a motor vehicle. Austin Patrick Hall, charged in Johnson’s death, had been released early from the Alabama Department of Corrections, despite a previous attempt to escape while incarcerated that should have canceled any good time points he accumulated.

“I thought that was a very important thing for us lawmakers to wrap our minds around on these offenders who are being sentenced in our court system, and there is a certain level of expectations by the victim that their offender is going to serve that time in prison,” Rep. Russell Bedsole, R-Alabaster, who carried the bill in the House. “But what we were finding is that was drastically cut because of the good time statute.”

Critics said Hall’s release was about an administrative error, not good time itself, and said cutting good time would further hurt a system struggling with violence and overcrowding.

“There are already so few individuals who qualify for good time,” said Alison Mollman, senior counsel for the ACLU of Alabama. “To see our legislature step in and cut that even more, to actually see people, for basic disciplinary reasons, have years of their gain time taken away from them, is going to exacerbate our overcrowding crisis, and is going to perpetuate this crisis at the Alabama Department of Corrections.”

HB 1, sponsored by Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, imposed mandatory minimum sentences for trafficking fentanyl. Those found guilty of distributing between 2.2 pounds and 100 pounds would face at least 3 years in prison and a $50,000 fine.

Those who distribute less than 500 pounds of fentanyl will be sentenced to at least five years in prison, 1,000 pounds of fentanyl will be sentenced to 15 years in prison and those who sell at least 1,000 pounds of fentanyl will serve life in prison.

“We have addressed the issue of fentanyl, which is a major issue in our state,” Simpson said when describing his bill along with others. “We have gone at it with the sense of attacking the dealer, the trafficker, the person who is providing the drugs and bringing them into our community and not the user.”

SB 143, sponsored by Sen. Will Barfoot, R-Pike Road, will enhance penalties for crimes committed by members of “criminal enterprises,” such as gangs. Under the bill, those convicted of Class A felony and identified as a member of a criminal enterprise, will serve at least 25 years in prison. Those convicted of a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison, would be sentenced for a Class A felony, with punishments of up to 99 years or life in prison and a $60,000 fine.

People who have been convicted of a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison and a $15,000 fine, will serve the same penalty as someone who serves a Class B felony.

The bill also enhances penalties for members of criminal enterprises using firearms while committing a crime. Possession of a firearm would result in five years in prison. Brandishing a firearm is punishable with at least seven years in prison. Firing a weapon, or possessing a short-barreled shotgun or rifle, will get a person 10 years in prison. Using a machine gun amounts to 30 years in prison. The sentences will also be consecutive and without reductions.

Critics are concerned about the impact the longer sentences will have on the criminal justice system, especially for the health and safety of not only those who are serving time in prisons, but also the corrections officers overseeing them in the facilities.

“I think there were laws passed that were quite counterproductive for some of the problems we face in Alabama right now, especially our overcrowded and dangerous prisons,” said Russell Gold, an associate professor of law at the University of Alabama. “Laws that make that problem worse are quite misguided.”

Bills to reform the criminal justice system faced long odds in a year when the Legislature was calling for stiffer penalties for those who violated the law. HB 16, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, would have established a Criminal Justice Policy Development Council to create guidelines for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles when deciding whether to grant inmates parole.

Currently, the Board has discretion for ignoring recommendations and risk assessments when they deny parole. Critics have said that has contributed to parole grants falling to a trickle, which they say exacerbates the prison overcrowding crisis.

The bill would have required the board to incorporate the council’s guidelines into its decisions. It would have also given  inmates the opportunity to appeal the Board’s decision to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.

Members of the House Judiciary Committee voted to send the bill to a subcommittee, where it died.

“We know that one in four people who are denied parole in Alabama are at work release facilities,” Mollman said. “And it is our position that if people are safe enough to work in the communities, they are safe enough to return to their families.”

HB 229, also sponsored by England, passed the House but failed to come to a vote in the Senate. The legislation involved sentencing reform that would have offered those sentenced under the state’s Habitual Offender Felony Act, to have their cases reviewed.

The bill was changed as it made its way through the legislature and eventually passed the House chamber. It would have allowed a judge to review the cases of those who committed a crime before May 2000 that did not result in a physical injury to another person.

Alabama passed the Habitual Offender Felony Act in 1977, enhancing penalties for people who have been convicted of felonies in the past. The law has been a factor in the state’s prison overcrowding crisis.

“Many lawmakers seem perfectly fine ignoring the powder-keg conditions across the prison system and the upcoming federal trial,” said Carla Crowder, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Throughout the session we heard from family members whose sons were terrorized in state custody. We watched as overdose and homicide deaths continued in a prison system with the highest death rates in the country.  Entire dorms have no guards and incarcerated people are literally sleeping on sidewalks outside the cell blocks. This is not a system that can safely manage an increase in population or be trusted to rehabilitate people.  But that hard truth was all but ignored by lawmakers.”

England also proposed HB 14, which would require unanimous jury verdicts to impose the death penalty. Currently, 10 of 12 jurors must vote to put someone to death.

It also offers people who are on death row to be resentenced if the trial judge overruled the jury’s verdict for life in prison. The Legislature in 2017 ended the ability of judges to impose the death penalty over a jury’s opposition. But the change was not made retroactive.

“That has been a longtime goal of Alabama Arise, to reform the death penalty,” said Mike Nicholson, a policy analyst with Alabama Arise. “Legislation, typically that reforms the death penalty, is not even brought up in committee, so having that bill that would have required unanimous jury verdicts, as well as making judicial override retroactive, to have that brought up in committee is a big step for that legislation.”

The House Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bill but never took a vote on the measure.

There were some victories for advocates. Prior to the driver’s license bill becoming law, people could have their driver’s licenses suspended for missing a single court appearance or fine or fee payment.

SB 154, sponsored by Barfoot, allows someone to continue driving as long as the person does not miss more than one court appearance or two payments on their fines and fees.

Alabama Appleseed had advocated strongly for this legislation, claiming that it would help lower-income individuals who had been incarcerated.

“We had significant opposition last year on driver’s license reform, but through persistence, compromise, and the determination of our bill sponsors we passed major economic justice reform which was also common-sense legislation,” Crowder said.

Advocates also saw the failure of HB 209, sponsored by Rep. Jamie Kiel, R-Russellville, as a victory. The legislation would have criminalized some individuals and organizations for assisting people with their absentee ballots.

The bill would have made it a Class C felony, punishable by up to 10 years in prison, to accept money for completing a person’s ballot. Paying someone to assist with a ballot would have been a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. Helping someone complete a ballot is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year in jail. The bill did include exceptions in certain cases.

“That was thinly veiled voter suppression,” said Muaath Al-Khattab, a community organizer with the Montgomery chapter of Faith in Action Alabama.

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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.