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Prison reform bills advance

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A number of criminal justice bills were approved in Alabama House and Senate committees on Wednesday, ma progress for Gov. Kay Ivey’s endorsed prison reform proposals and others.

House Bill 113, “Aniah’s Law,” from Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, would allow judges to deny bail to anyone arrested on violent Class A felonies. The state already denies bail in cases of capitol murder.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, attempted to amend the bill to limit denial to six violent crimes, but a concern over not covering those arrested on domestic abuse charges was brought up by Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, and Ward dropped his substitute.

The committee passed the bill as originally written with no opposition.

The bill was named for Aniah Blanchard, a 19-year-old college student who was killed last October after being kidnapped from an Auburn convenience store. The man charged with killing Blanchard was out on bond while awaiting trial on kidnapping and attempted murder charges.

Aniah’s Law is a constitutional amendment, so if it’s passed by the Senate it will go to the voters in the next general election.

Senate Bill 14, sponsored by Ward, would allow misdemeanors or certain non-violent felonies to be expunged from one’s record.

It passed the committee, with the only no vote from Sen. Sam Givhan, R-Huntsville.

“What we’re trying to get at is if I’m 18 and did something stupid its not going to be held against me in job applications,” Ward said during the Senate committee meeting.

Individuals convicted of the certain offenses would have to fulfill their parole requirements to get their record expunged. Alabama currently allows the expungement of certain misdemeanor charges, but this would be the first time convictions could be taken off one’s record.

The bill also increases the cost from $300 to $500 to expunge a person’s record. The extra $200 would then be split among the state’s General Fund budget and the Education Trust Fund.

An amendment was added to allow insurance companies access to one’s record for rate purposes, including car insurance and traffic ticket histories. Law enforcement can also still see a person’s record if they are conducting an investigation.

The House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, also passed out of a House committee on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 136 deals with pretrial diversion programs and allows those who want to be transferred to a diversion program in a court other  than where they were convicted be allowed to do so as long as the judge’s of both courts approve the transfer. The bill, also sponsored by Ward, passed by the committee on a voice vote with no opposition.

Senate Bill 237 from Ward also passed the committee with the only no vote from Givhan. That bill would establish a program to incentivize inmates to complete education or certification programs while incarcerated with a reduction in their sentences. A 12-month reduction would be the maximum allowed.

Inmates who are convicted of the most violent offenses, including murder, rape, or child abuse, will not be offered the incentives.

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, was a member of the governor’s study group on criminal justice reform and said 12 months was the number that was compromised on.

“There was many hours of debate about whether we should take time off at all,” Singleton said. “But this is about criminal justice reform, because you’ve got inmates just sitting around doing no work and not getting any education.”

The bill also offers tax credits to employers who hire former inmates and prevents state employers from asking about an individual’s conviction history during the interview process.

“This bill delivers a great deal of re-entry relief and recidivism which is what we’ve been looking for in theses prison reform bills,” Ward said.

Senate Bill 288 from Ward was passed by the committee with no opposition. It requires the Alabama Department of Corrections to report more information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee and update the oath of office that is taken by correctional officers to reflect the department’s renewed focus on rehabilitation.

The additional information that ADOC would be required to report includes:

  • The size or composition of the inmate population;
  • The status of correctional officer staffing levels;
  • Inmate participation in education, vocational, religious or reentry programs;
  • Litigation involving the performance of an ADOC employee;
  • Sexual abuse and sexual victimization of inmates while in custody and the status of the investigation case;
  • The number, manner and cause of inmate deaths while in custody;
  • Cell phones, electronic devices, weapons and controlled substances recovered in facilities.

The House version of the bill sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, was approved the House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday as well.

Senate Bill 289 from Ward also passed the committee with no opposition. It will provide former inmates the ability to receive a non-driver photo identification card to help them join the workforce. It would require the ADOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to work together to assist inmates in obtaining a Social Security card, birth certificate and a non-driving photo ID prior to release.

Senate Bill 226 from Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, also passed the committee with no opposition.It would establish a deputy commissioner of rehabilitation within the ADOC, as well as the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Senate Bill 209 from Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, also approved in committee, would allow those released from prison to have their voting rights restored automatically once all conditions of their parole are met and restitution fees are paid. Court fines and other fees involved with their conviction would not have to be paid off in order to get their voting rights restored.

“We want people to feel like they have dignity when they get out and that they have value and worth and I think the right to vote makes a person feel like they are a full-fledged citizen,” Coleman-Madison said.

Once their voting rights are restored, the former inmate would still have to register to vote.

Givhan and Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, voted against the bill in committee.

Coleman-Madison said the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and Secretary of State support this bill.

House Bill 227, sponsored by Hill, deals with sentencing reform and passed out of the House Judiciary committee.

His bill allows anyone convicted of a non-violent crime to have their sentence re-evaluated under the presumptive sentencing guidelines established in 2013. An inmate’s sentence could be re-considered if they have demonstrated acceptable conduct while in custody. The decision is up to a judge’s discretion.

Hill said that there are around 500 to 700 inmates whose sentences could be re-evaluated and shortened under this bill. He said it won’t have a huge impact on reducing prison populations but is about creating fairness in Alabama’s sentencing structure.

Senate Bill 75, sponsored by Ward, makes it easier for released inmates to obtain a non-driver photo-ID so as to make it easier to rejoin the workforce.

The bill passed out of committee with only no votes from Givhan and Stutts.

The bill would require ADOC and the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency to work together to assist inmates in obtaining a Social Security card, birth certificate and a non-driving photo ID prior to release.

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