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Will special session include sentencing reform measures?

By MARY SELL and TODD STACY, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – At the very end of the Alabama Legislature’s 2021 Regular Session in May, a slate of four criminal justice bills died before getting a vote in the Senate.

The bills, sponsored by Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, received bi-partisan support in the House and looked to be a lock to go to the governor’s desk. But things can get testy between the chambers on the final days of session and they never came up for a final vote.

“Sometimes with these things, you just run out of time,” Hill told Alabama Daily News on Monday.

Now, Hill is prepared to file the bills again in the special session on prison construction, should they fit into Gov. Kay Ivey’s special session plan.

“These are the four I think would make the most immediate impact on our prison system,” Hill told ADN on Monday.

Hill’s bills would:

  • Allow 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.
  • Require each judicial circuit to establish a community punishment and corrections program in at least one county in the circuit. A report earlier this year found that the programs that allow non-violent offenders to stay in their communities to serve their sentences reduced recidivism rates. But the programs varied widely across the state and aren’t available everywhere.
  • Expand the number of inmates who could be released prior to the end of their sentence and placed on supervised release by making a 2015 law retroactive.
  • Allow a judge to use his or her discretion in determining the length of sentence a defendant must serve if his or her probation is revoked under a split sentence. Under existing law, a defendant sentenced to a split sentence is required to serve the remainder of the original sentence if his or her probation is revoked.

Only the governor can call a special session of the Legislature. That official proclamation, or call, includes the parameters of what lawmakers can debate during the session.

If Ivey words the call broadly to include prison and sentencing reform, Hill said at least some of his bills will fit.

“I’m trying to be ready for whatever she does,” Hill said.

Asked if Ivey plans to include any criminal justice legislation in her call for a special session, spokeswoman Gina Maiola would not say.

“We are working with leadership now to finalize the call,” Maiola said in an email Monday.

To bring up and pass items outside of the call takes a two-thirds vote in each chamber.

“That makes it nearly impossible to pass anything that’s not in the call,” Hill said.

Should the governor not include a broader call, Hill says he’ll file his bills before the Jan. 11 regular session.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has long advocated for more aggressive sentencing reform in the Legislature. He did not respond to attempts to contact him for this story.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, recently told ADN that improved access to education opportunities, mental health and addiction care and prison reform were important to his members when discussing prison construction.

The draft prison construction bill allows the state to borrow $785 million to build two men’s prisons. Federal COVID-19 relief money will also be used in the first phase of construction. The bill calls for a new women’s prison in phase two, but doesn’t have a dedicated funding source for that construction.

Hill said even if his bills don’t get approved in this special session, he’s supportive of the prison plan.

“I’m 100% in favor of the building of these prisons,” Hill said, calling many of the current facilities antiquated.

“I would love for her to make a broader call, but I’m going to support the call she makes,” Hill said.

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