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Deputy’s shooting death again prompts exam of early release law

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

The state’s top law enforcement officer is again calling for changes to the state’s “good time” early release law for inmates following the shooting death of a Bibb County deputy last week, allegedly by a man with a significant criminal record.

“Had the shooter served his entire sentence, he would not have been able to commit his brazen crime spree across our state …” Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall said in a written statement Wednesday. “Furthermore, an inmate who escapes custody should never, under any circumstance, be rewarded with early release.”

Marshall’s statement doesn’t mention Austin Patrick Hall by name, but does outline the 26-year-old’s criminal record that began in 2016 and included multiple theft and burglary charges, an escape from work release in 2019 and a good time release, without supervision, on April 8, 2022.

“Days after his release from state custody, (Hall) bonded out of jail on 10 new charges in Calhoun County and 12 new charges in Chilton County—including charges of assaulting a police officer and illegally possessing a firearm,” Marshall said. “In both counties, his bond was set in keeping with the recommended fee range. After he made bond, (Hall) walked free to await his trial.”

Hall is charged with shooting two Bibb County deputies last week while fleeing from them. Deputy Brad Johnson, 32, later died.

“As was the case with the death of Sgt. Nick Risner last fall, this tragedy requires that we reassess the state laws and policies that abetted this shooter in the death of Deputy Brad Johnson,” Marshall said.

Austin Patrick Hall

Current law allows for a Class I prisoner — those considered the least dangerous — can receive sentence deductions of 75 days for each 30 days actually served. Class II, III and IV prisoners receive lesser breaks on their sentences.

Good time reductions aren’t allowed for prisoners who have been: Convicted of a Class A felony; Sentenced to life in prison, a death sentence or a sentence of more than 15 years; or Convicted of a sex offense involving a minor.

In this spring’s legislative session, Rep. Phillip Pettus, R-Green Hill, changed the law to prohibit people convicted of killing someone with a deadly weapon from getting early release. It went into effect July 1. Pettus’ bill was named for Risner, a Sheffield officer who’s accused killer was released from prison after serving a little more than three years of a 10-year sentence for manslaughter.  

The Alabama Department of Corrections didn’t comment Wednesday on Marshall’s statement or the law that allowed for Hall’s release. 

Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole Director Cam Ward said early release shouldn’t be abolished completely, arguing that taking away the incentive would make the state’s prisons more crowded and dangerous. But he said the formula should be adjusted to reflect a prisoner’s entire history, including escapes or other violent behavior.

“You can’t have an escape attempt, and then say, well his good time was X amount of days,” Ward said. “That’s not a true picture of what good time was supposed to be.”

Ward, who during his time in the Legislature chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee, said that while laws were followed when Hall was released, there needs to be better communication among state, county and city agencies about offenders’ and their risk levels.

“We have to do something to improve that,” he said. “I don’t think anyone had a complete picture of (Hall). We all agree, everyone who’s read the story or read his file say (Hall) should have never been out.” 

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, is a former assistant prosecutor in Mobile and Baldwin counties. He describes having to tell crime victims that while the perpetrator may be sentenced to 10 years, they could be released in three.

“There needs to be truth in sentencing, there needs to be some honesty in the criminal justice system,” Simpson said on Wednesday.

“There needs to be some form of comfort and clarity for the victims, so they know how long the person is going to be behind bars.” 

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