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New bills to target ‘broken’ criminal justice system, reform death sentencing

State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, pre-filed a number of bills in an attempt to fix what he called Alabama’s “broken” criminal justice system, with one bill in particular targeting the way death sentences can be imposed without a unanimous jury decision.

House Bill 14 would allow for a death sentence to be imposed only by unanimous jury vote. Currently, judges in Alabama have the authority to impose a death sentence so long as at least 10 of 12 jurors vote to impose such a sentence. 

Another bill pre-filed by England, who is the ranking minority member on the House Judiciary Committee, would target the way inmates are considered for parole, with data showing a growing racial disparity in parole grants in recent years.

House Bill 16 would create the Criminal Justice Policy Development Council, an appointed body that would develop a set of eligibility guidelines for inmates to be paroled. 

Under existing law, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles uses its guidelines when considering granting an inmate’s  parole “upon its own initiative,” according to state law.

Alabama House Rep. Chris England (D-Tuscaloosa) has sponsored a number of bills over the years aimed at reforming the state’s criminal justice system.

This bill would instead mandate that the Board of Pardons and Paroles use the guidelines developed by the new council, or explain in its reporting reasons for deviation.

“I don’t think it’s a shock to anybody that our criminal justice system is broken; certain elements of it are corrupt, certain current elements of it don’t work,” England told Alabama Daily News.

“The fact of the matter is, in each of these components from arrests, to prosecution, to incarceration, every step of the process is broken. So I’m just trying my best to identify problems and fix them.”

Criminal justice in Alabama

Criminal justice reform advocates have long considered Alabama to have among the harshest criminal justice systems in the United States. 

In 2019, 106,400 Alabama residents were incarcerated, amounting to an incarceration rate of 860 per 100,000, the fifth highest such rate in the country and significantly higher than the country’s overall rate of 630 per 100,000. 

Perhaps most notable about Alabama’s criminal justice system, however, is both the frequency and method in which it imposes death sentences.

Alabama currently has 165 inmates on death row, the third highest in the country behind Texas and Florida, respectively, despite having a significantly smaller population. Alabama is also just one of three states in which a judge can impose a death sentence without a unanimous jury decision, the other two states being Indiana and Missouri

Historically, judges in Alabama had very few limits on overruling a jury’s sentencing determination, a process known as judicial override. From 1976 to 2011, Alabama judges used judicial override 107 times, 98 of which were done on behalf of imposing a death sentence over life imprisonment, per the nonprofit organization Equal Justice Initiative.

“It requires a unanimous vote to convict, but it does not require a unanimous vote to sentence,” England said. “It is amazing to me that it’s easier to sentence someone to death than it is to convict them, and that is out of control.”

In 2017, however, England, along with former State Sen. Dick Brewbaker, R-Montgomery, sponsored a bill that only allowed judges to use judicial override to impose death sentences if at least 10 of 12 jurors also voted to impose a death sentence. That bill would be signed into law in April of that year.

‘I’m going back in to try to fix the problem’

While he considered the 2017 bill a significant improvement to Alabama’s death sentencing laws, England said his latest bills were an effort to finish what he had originally set out to do more than five years ago.

“About (five) years ago, Sen. Brewbaker and I sponsored a bill to end judicial override in Alabama; we were one of the last few states that would allow a judge to overrule a unanimous jury,” England said.

“Now in that bill was also a unanimous jury requirement, but at that point, (because of) compromise political politics, that was taken out and we ended up just taking out judicial override (in cases of jurors failing to reach the ten-vote threshold to impose a death sentence). So I’m going back in to try to fix that problem.”

In England’s latest bill, the unanimous jury requirement would also be retroactive, meaning an inmate previously sentenced to death by way of judicial override would be subject to re-sentencing.

Regarding his bill designed to reform the way in which inmates are granted parole, England said the current system simply “doesn’t work.”

“For us, we have no basis to believe that the decisions that the board is making are based on things that are protecting public safety,” England said. 

“If it’s just arbitrary decision making without any real qualitative assessment of the person in front of you, then how do we know that that’s the right decision? And if it is the right decision, how do we replicate it if there’s no guidelines?”

Internal documents from the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles show a continued decline in the number of parole grants approved for inmates, with 2017 and 2018 having parole grant rates of over 50%, whereas in 2020, that rate was less than 20%. The documents also show a growing racial disparity in which inmates are granted parole, with white inmates being granted parole during hearings by a rate of 24.7%, compared to just 11.5% in cases with black inmates.

Ultimately, England argued it was the lack of measurable guidelines that has caused these trends, and reforming those guidelines were the best path forward to rectifying the issue, or at the very least, identifying causes for declining parole grants and racial disparities.

“There’s no benchmarks, nothing tangible for us to say what you’re doing is working or not working; also, there’s a significant racial disparity between who gets released and who doesn’t,” England said. 

Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, the chair of the House Judiciary Committee, said that while he has yet to thoroughly review England’s proposed bills, his first impression of HB16 – which would establish the appointed body to set parole release guidelines – was generally positive.

“If (England’s) bill is like a standard-setting commission that sets those standards out and asks the Board of Pardons and Paroles to utilize those, or at least consider those – and like I said, I haven’t looked at (his) bill – but if it allows them to deviate from that but articulate a reason why, I basically think that’s a good idea,” Hill told Alabama Daily News.

“I think Chris England is a very bright guy, and when he does something, it’s generally well-thought out and certainly deserving of being looked at and considered.”

Newly elected Rep. Ontario Tillman, D-Bessemer, also on the House Judiciary Committee, called the bills “significant,” and told Alabama Daily News that he was supportive of the intent behind both HB14 and HB16.

“I definitely would agree regarding the death penalty, I do believe that you need a unanimous vote to actually sentence someone to death,” Tillman said. “To convict someone you need a unanimous vote, so I think the requirement should be significantly higher when you are actually determining whether or not a person should live or die.”

Regarding the establishment of new parole guidelines, Tillman mirrored England’s belief that the current system was inadequate.

“Having the three-man panel just (give) a blanket denial and not give a reason… that’s not how we should do business in the state of Alabama,” Tillman said.

England’s bills are set for their first reading when the state legislature convenes on March 7. 

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