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State Rep. England reintroduces flurry of criminal justice reform bills

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — As the 2024 legislative session fast approaches in Alabama, State Rep. Chris England is reintroducing a number of bills targeting the state’s criminal justice system, including potential sentencing and parole reforms. 

“I feel like I spend 99% of my time dealing with criminal justice issues, but there isn’t a component of our system that is operating efficiently or effectively,” England, D-Tuscaloosa, told Alabama Daily News.

With approximately 938 per 100,000 people incarcerated in Alabama, the state has among the highest incarceration rates in the country. Coupled with a significant drop in the number of inmates granted parole, as well as increased instances of violence and overcrowding in prisons, calls for criminal justice reform have grown in recent years, with England being among the leading voices.

While his criminal justice reform bills were unsuccessful during the 2023 legislative session, England told ADN he has reason to be hopeful that things could be different this time.

“I was somewhat surprised that there were so many different people that came together (this past session); Republicans, Democrats, the attorney general’s office worked with me on (my criminal justice reform bills)… I won’t say they supported it, but they at least were neutral to put forth common sense legislation to ease some of the burden on our prison systems,” he said. 

“So that gives me some optimism that sometimes good ideas prevail, (and that) working together can motivate people to achieve a common objective.”

State Rep. Chris England.

Getting all five bills to Gov. Kay Ivey’s desk, however, will still likely prove an uphill battle. One bill England prefiled that would reform the state parole board, for instance, saw strong opposition from Reps. Jerry Starnes, R-Prattville, and Matt Simpon, R-Daphne when introduced this past session.

Simpson told ADN Monday that while he had not seen all of England’s new criminal justice reform bills, he did not “anticipate voting any differently than I have in the past.”

That parole reform bill would create a new oversight council for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles as a means to coerce the board to follow its own guidelines on granting parole.

While the parole board currently has guidelines that produce a recommended parole grant rate for any given month based on an inmate scoring formula, board members are under no obligation to consider the recommended rates in their decision, and often grant parole at rates far less than what’s recommended. 

In August, for instance, the parole board’s guidelines produced a recommended parole grant rate of 80%, though members granted parole that month at a rate of just 5%.

The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles’ parole grant rate versus its recommended grant rate from October 2022 to August 2023.

“In any other part of government, if I told you that there was a government agency that had no oversight, complete and utter discretion, (and) could do whatever they wanted, bills would be coming from all over the place to try to put some regulatory measures in place to make sure it doesn’t get out of control like this board is now,” England said. 

“But as soon as you bring up the parole board, everybody pretends like it’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

Under England’s bill, the parole board would be required to follow its own guidelines on granting parole, or produce a written report to the new oversight council in instances of deviation. The bill would also afford inmates who were denied parole under circumstances that deviated from the parole board’s guidelines a greater opportunity to appeal the decision in court.

As to the cause for the parole board’s declining parole grant rate, England argued it could be traced back to a singular event.

“It’s a leadership problem, it’s a chair problem, it’s a problem with Leigh Gwathney, you can trace it all the way back to November 2019,” England said.

Appointed in November of 2019, Gwathney’s appointment as chair of the parole board came with it a sharp decline in the percentage of inmates granted parole. Gwathney previously told ADN that her board isn’t “driven by statistics,” justifying the shrinking parole grant rates as a matter of public safety.

Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair Leigh Gwathney.

Two of England’s bills – House Bill 27 and 29 – would reform criminal sentences, particularly sentences of death and those made under the state’s habitual offender law.

Until 2017, judges in Alabama had the authority to override a jury’s sentencing verdict to impose the death penalty, a process often referred to as judicial override. While state lawmakers have since banned this practice, those sentenced to death by judicial override prior to 2017 were not given the opportunity to be resentenced, such as in the case of Kenneth Smith, who is set to be executed by nitrogen gas in January.

Under HB27, death row inmates like Smith would be given a chance to be resentenced.

“Alabama is going to become the first state in the entire country to gas someone to death, and I believe that gentlemen was sentenced to death by judicial override; Alabama has decided years ago that judicial override wasn’t the right thing to do, so we eliminated it,” England said. 

On HB29, those that were sentenced to life in prison under the state’s habitual offender law, which mandates a life sentence for those convicted of four felonies under certain circumstances, would be granted the chance to be resentenced. The bill would not apply to those convicted of more serious offenses including murder and rape.

As of 2020, there were more than 500 Alabamians serving life sentences under the state’s habitual offender law, all of whom would be granted the opportunity to be resentenced under HB29.

House Bill 28 would further seek to reform sentencing by changing Alabama’s ‘felony-murder rule,’ which allows for individuals to be charged with murder if, while in the commission of a felony, another person dies, even at the hands of police.

The bill essentially adds one exclusion to the felony-murder rule, and reads that “a person does not commit murder if the person killed was a willing participant in the commission of, or attempt to commit, the underlying felony.”

And House Bill 16, the last of England’s criminal justice reform bills, would permit a court clerk, at their own discretion, to accept a lesser amount of cash bail than what was set by a judge.

England said he’s optimistic about his bills, but also sees potential for criminal justice reform efforts to get derailed next year by bills he described as “designed to divide.”

“I always carry that realistic side (too) that we’ll deal with a bunch of issues that are designed to divide, to make people angry, to motivate emotion, and capitalize off division,” he said. “Stuff like library bills, stuff targeting the LGBTQ community, bills targeting voting rights and things like that. They’ll try to turn things that aren’t issues into issues to divide us and make us fight.”

The legislative session starts Feb. 6.

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