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Prison policy group discusses more pre-trial diversion, education

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy had its final meeting Tuesday to discuss strategies for improving the state’s crowded and dangerous prison system. The panel is expected to make its recommended policy changes ahead of Alabama’s legislative session, which begins Feb. 4.

“I think we’ve had 20-40 years of a ‘lock everybody up’ mentality, and you can see in 2020 where it’s gotten us,” Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, said during the meeting. “So I think it’s time to try something different and I think it’s time to try something revolutionary.”

Kelly Butler, director of Alabama’s Department of Finance, is a member of the study group and told Alabama Daily News that discussions about funding in the 2021 General Fund budget are still ongoing.

“We’re hearing a lot of ideas,” Butler said. “I would predict that maybe some of those things might happen, but it’s too early to be sure.”

The group mostly agreed that pre-trial diversion programs that allow offenders to get treatment instead of jail time and that more mental health services and in-prison education programs were all areas that needed improvement and better funding. But some warned that, while a good tool for avoiding incarceration, pretrial diversion can be a “pay-to-play” system that is unfair to those who can’t pay the fees.

Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said that she is in favor of pre-trial diversion programs, but thinks those operating out of district attorneys’ offices should be fully funded by the state and not by those in the programs.

“I’ve seen time and time again where someone just gets caught and they cannot get out,” Rowe said. “It’s like having 15 credit cards and you’re just paying minimum payment due on everything just to keep your head above water.”

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told the group that he went through a pretrial diversion program after a drunken driving arrest in 2015, the Associated Press reported. Participating in the program cost him about $2,000, he said.

“I was lucky because I had the means to do so, but there are a lot of people who couldn’t. And that’s not right,” Ward said.

Another proposal that had considerable discussion was reclassifying certain violent offenses like drug trafficking and third-degree burglary, where no one is physically injured, as non-violent.

Katherine Robertson is chief counsel to Attorney General Steve Marshall and represents his office on the study group. She said Marshall has apprehension about decriminalizing marijuana and reclassifying drug trafficking.

“(The) AG has some pretty serious concerns about removing drug trafficking from the violent offense definition,” Robertson said. “In our experience, drug trafficking is pretty inseparable from violent victimization.”

Separately, Marshall last week told lawmakers he is opposed to legislation to legalize medical marijuana in the state.

Former Alabama Supreme Court Justice Champ Lyons leads the study group and said it will get its policy recommendations to the governor before the legislative session begins next month.

The Alabamians for Fair Justice Coalition had a noticeable presence on Tuesday and staged a demonstration in front of the Alabama State House before the meeting. Some of its suggestions include reforming the habitual felony offender act, increasing paroles, reducing sentences for non-violent crimes and reforming substance abuse laws.

Ward also said he would be interested in looking into reclassification of sentences, but public safety has to come first.

“We need to look at this and see if it’s just and equitable but at the same time it’s a public safety issue,” Ward said.

A violent offense under Alabama statute can be anything from capital murder, assault, kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, burglary, intimidating a witness, child abuse, human trafficking and sexual abuse. A non-violent offense is any crime that isn’t classified as a violent offense.

Ward, who is running for the Alabama Supreme Court, announced Tuesday afternoon that he is sponsoring a proposed constitutional amendment that would deny bail to those accused of certain class A crimes.

Alabama’s constitution currently states that any person can be considered for bail unless they are being accused of a capital offense.

He said the bill was in reaction to the death of Aniah Blanchard,  She was allegedly murdered by Ibraheed Yazeed who was on bail for kidnapping and attempted murder charges when Blanchard was killed.

Alabama Daily News reported last month another lawmaker is sponsoring another bill related to bail.

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