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Report: Changes to habitual offender law needed

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

A new report urges Alabama leaders to change state laws that mean “death in prison sentences” for inmates convicted of crimes in which victims were not injured.

“Condemned,” from the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, details how Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act is more punitive than most other Southern states’ laws and how keeping these men — many of them now senior citizens — in prisons is costing the state millions of dollars in medical care. 

“We hope (lawmakers and other officials) realize that hundreds of people are still trapped in life without parole sentences for crimes where there was no physical injury and who if sentenced today would do a fraction of their current sentences,” Appleseed Executive Director Carla Crowder told Alabama Daily News.

The state’s Habitual Felony Offender Act dates back to the 1970s and allows for a sentence of life in prison without parole on a fourth felony conviction. It has been modified occasionally, including in 2015 when lawmakers created a new class of felony for non-violent crimes, including thefts and forgeries, that don’t qualify for a life sentence. The law change was not retroactive.

According to the report, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia only use certain prior offenses to enhance penalties, specifically violent and sex-related offenses. In Alabama, non-violent priors are treated the same as violent priors throughout the law. 

Arkansas reserves life without parole for repeat sex offenders.

“We can unequivocally say that in all kinds of categories, our law is harsher than every southern state except for Mississippi,” Crowder said.

The report recommends: 

  • Giving judges the discretion to “look back” and resentence older individuals; 
  • Removing the possibility of life imprisonment without parole for robbery convictions;
  • Limiting the types of prior offenses that can be used to enhance a sentence;
  • Applying retroactively 2015 sentencing reforms. 

Several bills related to reviewing inmates’ current sentences were discussed in the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday. Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, sponsors House Bill 107, which would repeal the Habitual Felony Offender Act and allow for resentencing of those now in prison under the law.

“The likelihood is if this bill were to pass, there wouldn’t be anyone just walking out of prison,” England told the committee. “All it does is create a right to review for sentences.” 

But after some debate with Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, who spoke to the peace of mind the habitual offender act gives crime victims and said the legislation could result in shorter sentences for some repeat felons, the bill was sent to a sub committee.

The committee gave a favorable report to House Bill 24, which would provide for resentencing of those convicted of nonviolent crimes that occurred prior to Oct. 1, 2013. That bill is from Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville. He’s the committee chairman and a former circuit and district judge. He said if sentenced today, many of the inmates would get shorter sentences.

“It is not a guarantee to resentencing, but an opportunity,” he said. 

Hill’s bill wouldn’t apply to many of the inmates in the Appleseed report because it doesn’t change the classification of first-degree robbery as a violent crime. The law defines First Degree Robbery as resulting in a serious injury or involving a deadly weapon.

Crowder said there are currently 239 men serving life without the possibility of parole because their fourth offense was first-degree robbery.

Another more than 300 inmates are serving life sentences on first-degree robbery convictions. 

“That number is really important because the (Alabama Parole Board) will often not even look at anybody with a violent offense and robberies are considered violent,” Crowder said. “So you’ve got more than 500 people who are just kind of stuck right now for these robberies.”

Former state senator Cam Ward, now the director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, sponsored the 2015 sentencing changes. He said he tried to make them retroactive, but didn’t have the votes to do it. One stumbling block, he said, was that retroactivity would require the review of hundreds of inmates’ previous crimes.

“That’s going to be a lot of money and a lot of time for some agency,” Ward said. “It’s hard to argue to the logic (of applying the reforms retroactively), but how you make it work is another matter.” 

Meanwhile, Ward said that while first-degree robbery doesn’t have to result in injury, the use of a weapon can be traumatic.

“You stick a gun in someone’s face, you may not hurt them, but you’ve stuck a gun in their face,” Ward said. “I just don’t see an appetite among the Legislature to make that a nonviolent offense.” 

Appleseed is not seeking to make robbery a nonviolent crime.

Aging inmates

The report includes testimonials from about a dozen incarcerated men, senior citizens who say they’ve reformed their lives and hope for a second chance outside of prison.

It says there are 6,169 people over the age of 50 incarcerated in Alabama, nearly 30% of whom are there under the Habitual Felony Offender Act.

“What all the evidence shows is that (the likelihood of someone committing another crime) drops enormously as people reach their 40s, and to almost zero by age 60,” Crowder said. “And so it’s completely counterproductive to continue to one, incarcerate people in our inhumane prisons and two, spend the huge amounts on health care that we’re spending for the people least likely to reoffend.”

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, is among the lawmakers considering the review of at least some of the state’s long-serving inmates’ sentences.

“We’ve got to look at these aged prisoners and see whether their continued incarceration makes sense for us as a state,” Orr said. “While we need to certainly be mindful of their crimes, I understand that these inmates caused no physical harm to anyone. I’m not sure what is gained by having them die in prison as opposed to allowing an opportunity to make the case for an early release and let them live their last years outside the prison walls. “ 

Orr said he’s not advocating for automatic releases.

“Those who might be eligible would have to have demonstrated very good behavior during their decades in prison,” he said.

Crowder said many of the men took advantage of educational programs available to them decades ago.

“They did the programs and now they’re just biding their time … there is very little for them to do,” she said.

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