3 years ago

Heritage Foundation features Alabama prison reform in three-part series

"Lady Justice" Flickr user Scott*
“Lady Justice” Flickr user Scott*

The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think-tank based out of Washington, D.C., is taking a closer look at the positive effects of criminal justice reform in Alabama. This week, their news website, The Daily Signal, spotlighted the use of community corrections programs.

The Alabama Legislature passed sweeping prison reform with only 5 dissenting votes during this year’s Regular Session, culminating several years of work by a broad coalition seeking to ease overcrowding in the system while maintaining public safety.

The bill is expected to shrink the prison system’s population by 4,500 inmates over the next 5 years. It also reduces the penalties for some nonviolent and drug-related crimes and strengthens the state’s parole program in an effort to reduce recidivism.

Under the new plan, convicted felons would have expanded opportunities to serve their sentences in their home communities rather than prison.

In a community corrections program, adopted and run at the county level, the offender must attend counseling and treatment programs at a facility during the day. In most cases, he or she has the freedom to go home at night.

Though they get to live at home during their time in the program, everyone sent to community corrections is still considered an inmate. If they skip required classes and meetings, they can be punished.

When only made available to nonviolent offenders, advocates of criminal justice reform say that community-based treatment provides a more effective outlet to rehabilitate people and keeps them from returning to a life of crime.

Many of these offenders have a drug or mental health issues that prison could exacerbate since it is a place where solid role-models are lacking.

Prison is essentially LinkedIn for criminals. Non-violent offenders go in to an environment surrounded by negative influences and those who have committed hard crimes. In The Daily Signal piece, Bennet Wright, director of Alabama’s Sentencing Commission, put it this way:

“The idea is that prison and community-based treatment are two wildly different environments. Just think about it. If you are surrounded by hardened criminals, you are basically doing social networking. That’s how we did criminal justice for a long time: ‘I am going to send you to prison to make you better.’ There’s definitely certain people that need to go. But if someone really is in need of programs and treatments, prison is not the ideal setting for them to get that.”

Under the new state law, assuming it is fully funded in the Special Session, there will be a new class of felonies for the least serious nonviolent crimes. These offenders will rarely see prison time. Instead, judges, who know the costs of prison more than anyone, would have greater discretion to sentence them directly to community corrections.

Research shows that offenders are more likely to commit new crimes within the first year of release from incarceration. Despite this fact, about one-third of those who left Alabama prisons in 2013 had no supervision as a safeguard against recidivism.

Half of all Alabama offenders complete their sentence in prison and then are released without supervision. Those very offenders are the most likely to return to the activities that got them in to prison initially.

The new law aims to break the cycle by mandating that all those released from prison be supervised in some form and that most offenders serve the back end of their sentences in community corrections.

While the reform bill expands access to community-based programs, several counties in the state have been running them for years. Jefferson County, home of the state’s largest city, Birmingham, has a system considered to be the model in the state.

In 2013-14, of those who came to Jefferson County from prison through the re-entry program, 80 percent successfully completed their treatment plan. 90 percent remained off drugs and alcohol after six months, and 69 percent were employed or attending school in that same period.

Currently, community corrections programs exist in only 45 of Alabama’s 67 counties, so it’s not a sentencing option available everywhere in the state—especially in poorer, rural counties.

The lack of sentencing flexibility has caused several problems for the Yellowhammer State including a rising prison budget, overcrowding, and a threat of a federal takeover.

1 in every 148 Alabamians is incarcerated in some manner. As of July 2010, only 43 percent of Alabama’s prisoners were serving time for violent crimes. The cost of housing inmates in prisons has risen 95 percent over the last two decades. As of 2008, the state was spending $15,178 per inmate each year. That’s $41.47 for each inmate every single day funded directly by state taxpayers.

The Daily Signal’s News Editor and author of the piece, Josh Siegel believes that the reforms could have a positive effect for both ex-felons and taxpayers.

In an interview with Yellowhammer News, Siegel said that criminal justice reform is a conservative issue from a costs and rehabilitation perspective. A major tenant of conservatism is reducing the price of government, and one of its main drivers at the state level has been the rising cost of prisons. Solutions that keep non-violent offenders out of prison and away from crime long-term creates benefits for everyone, he argues.

When asked about why he chose Alabama, Siegel said it was because he “saw that a lot of deep south states, Alabama in particular, have really become leaders on this issue.”

South Carolina, another pioneer in the field, is further along in the reform process than Alabama, and Siegel believed that the state would more effectively illustrate the benefits of system transition. “Here’s Alabama, that hasn’t implemented anything yet, but we wanted to see what’s providing impetus for this and provide details on how people are trying to fix the problems,” he said.

Siegel also believes that criminal justice reforms in Alabama can help remold standards at the federal level. He cited Governor Bentley’s trip to D.C. to discuss Alabama’s progress before the House of Representatives Oversight and Government Reform Committee as a sign that Alabama’s progress is noted.


2 hours ago

LISTEN: Yellowhammer’s Jeff Poor discusses Trump firing Mueller possibilities, Early stages of gubernatorial race

Wednesday on Birmingham’s Superstation 101 WYDE’s “The Line,” Breitbart.tv editor and Yellowhammer News contributing writer Jeff Poor discussed the day’s news with host Andrew McLain.

During the segment, Poor talked about reports President Donald Trump was considering firing special counsel Robert Mueller and how those could have been trial balloons meant to gauge public opinion and to get a reaction from members of Congress.

He also discussed the gubernatorial election and how we are seeing the initial stages of the campaign.

(Sign-up for our daily newsletter here and never miss another article from Yellowhammer News.)

15 hours ago

Alabama House rejects bill to track race in traffic stops

Alabama lawmakers on Thursday refused to debate legislation that would have required police officers to collect data about race and traffic stops.

The bill sought to require police agencies to record data about the race and ethnicity of stopped motorists. The Alabama Senate had unanimously approved the measure, but it hit a roadblock in the Alabama House of Representatives.


Representatives in the GOP-controlled House overwhelmingly voted down a procedural measure needed to bring the bill up for debate. The House vote was largely split along racial and party lines. Only five Republicans voted for the measure.

“After the vote, Democratic Rep. Merika Coleman from Pleasant Grove said lawmakers were sending a message that, “Bama is still backwards.”

Coleman said the bill collects data to determine if there are problems.

“When you vote against a bill that simply collects data, just data on who is being stopped, why they are being stopped and who is stopping them, there is something wrong with that,” Coleman said.

African-American lawmakers had shared stories of being stopped by police during debate on the bill as it moved through the Alabama Legislature.

The bill’s defeat sparked a filibuster by African-American legislators and threatened to cloud the remainder of the session. It eroded warm feelings that had filled the chamber moments earlier when lawmakers broke out in applause after voting to create a state holiday honoring civil rights icon honoring Rosa Parks.

The bill drew opposition from some law enforcement representatives who said departments already have policies against racial profiling and the bill would require additional paperwork.

Rep. Connie Rowe, a former police chief, said she was concerned that officers, assigned to work in mostly minority neighborhoods, could wrongly appear to be targeting minorities if the data was collected.

Rep. Allen Farley, a former assistant Jefferson County sheriff, was one of the Republicans who voted for the bill.

“This to me protects the good guys,” Farley, a Republican from McCalla, said. Farley said bad officers need to be identified.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, who voted against the bill, said he wanted to meet with lawmakers to see if they could work out a compromise plan.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

16 hours ago

Jeana Ross is a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact

An Alabama program called First Class Pre-K is seeing such extraordinary results that Harvard University is producing a documentary about the effort and more than 30,000 four-year-olds were pre-registered last year in hopes of snagging one of the less than 17,000 available spots state-wide.

The program is overseen by Alabama Secretary of Early Education Jeana Ross, a 2018 Yellowhammer Woman of Impact, who has seen First Class Pre-K’s attendance increase by 374 percent under her leadership, while maintaining the highest possible ranking for quality by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER).

Alabama hosts the program in more than 950 classrooms statewide and is one of only two states to meet all 10 of the institute’s quality benchmarks.


Ross told Yellowhammer News that the most rewarding part of her work is seeing firsthand the impact that skilled teachers can make, inspiring “a sense of wonder, joy, creativity, achievement and success” in a student’s learning.

“I care about children and their right to reach their greatest potential,” Ross said. “Education can and should provide children a powerful opportunity to find purpose and success for their future lives.”

Studies measuring results from tests such as the Alabama Reading and Math Test and the ACT found that First Class Pre-K alumni outperformed their peers who did not attend the program, according to the Alabama School Readiness Alliance.

Ross helped secure a $77.5 million preschool development grant to help fund the state-funded program, which also requires local communities to provide at least 25 percent of the funding to participate.

Also under her leadership, the Office of Early Learning and Family Support division of her department has expanded to serve 4,289 vulnerable families and children through more than $12 million in federal awards.

In all, Ross has led her department in writing and receiving federal grant awards totaling more than $100 million.

She attributes much of her success to the partnerships she has built with other groups serving children and families in Alabama to build a cohesive support system.

“My success has been achieved in a collective effort of devoted educators who, regardless of pay or recognition, work to create experiences where children enjoy through natural curiosity and joyful exploration a love of learning that lasts a lifetime,” Ross said.

Ross is a member of Governor Kay Ivey’s cabinet and was appointed by Governor Bentley in 2012. She advises the governor and state legislature in matters relating to the coordination of services for children under the age of 19 and, among her divisions, also oversees the Children’s Policy Councils, the Children First Trust Fund and the Head Start Collaboration office.

Ross previously served in a variety of education roles in Alabama, including as a central office administrator, assistant principal and classroom teacher. She holds a master’s degree in education leadership from the University of Alabama and a bachelor’s degree in early childhood education from UAB.

“My hope for education in Alabama is for every child to have a competent, sensitive and responsive teacher every day, every year,” Ross said.

As other states look to Ross’s success in Alabama’s early education, she offered three recommendations in a 2017 U.S. Department of Education interview:

“Set high-quality standards, communicate what those are, and demonstrate what they look like; involve parents, businesses and industry leaders in the initiative; and provide supports such as coaching and monitoring to maintain quality,” she said.

Ross and her husband live in Guntersville and Montgomery and have two adult sons and two grandchildren.

Join Ross and special guests from across the state for a Birmingham awards event March 29 honoring the 20 Yellowhammer Women of Impact whose powerful contributions advance Alabama. Details and registration may be found here.

Rachel Blackmon Bryars is managing editor of Yellowhammer News.

16 hours ago

Reward offered in 6-year-old case of Baby Jane Doe

Police found the bones of a little girl six years ago in an Alabama trailer park right next to a long-sleeve pink shirt with heart buttons and a ruffled neckline.

The unidentified girl in the unsolved homicide case has been dubbed Baby Jane Doe. The Lee County District Attorney’s Office announced Thursday up to a $5,000 reward for information leading to an involved person’s conviction.


Lee County District Attorney Brandon Hughes says authorities can begin holding perpetrators accountable once the child is identified.

Opelika Detective Sgt. Alfred White says they have the child’s DNA, but nothing to compare it to. The Opelika-Auburn News reports that police suspect the girl suffered abuse and malnutrition. Police Chief John McEachern says the girl could have easily spent her entire life in captivity.

(Associated Press, copyright 2018)

17 hours ago

Alabama Secretary of State to Facebook: ‘Don’t say you helped us with something if you didn’t help’

Secretary of State John Merrill challenged Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s revelation that his company helped disrupt the spreading of false information during Alabama’s special U.S. Senate election last December, telling Yellowhammer News that he has been shown no evidence to support Zuckerberg’s claim.

In an interview published Thursday, Zuckerberg revealed to the New York Times that his company targeted and eliminated a “significant number of fake Macedonian accounts that were trying to spread false news” about Alabama’s election.

Merrill’s office spoke with Facebook’s Government and Politics Team on Thursday to follow up about Zuckerberg’s claims.


“We said, ‘we don’t know what you’re talking about.’ We wanted one specific example,” Merrill said.

Just a week before the election in December, a deceptive campaign ad implying that voters’ ballot selections would be made public was spread on Google and Facebook. Merrill’s office contacted both Google and Facebook and asked for the ad to be removed. Google removed it, but Facebook did not.

Merrill said Facebook never responded about the ad.

“We believe that people in each state need to have accurate information that’s truthful,” Merrill said. “If [Facebook] can’t use their platform for that, they shouldn’t allow that kind of content be published.”

He continued, “For future races, I think it’s important that Facebook be available to address serious issues, for candidates, for officials, and be responsive in that they hear what the accusations are and evaluate merits of the claim.”

Facebook is receiving pressure from all sides after recent reports revealed that it allowed Cambridge Analytica, a private data firm associated with President Donald Trump’s campaign, to mine data of more than 50 million of the platform’s users without their permission.

Merrill said that he hopes the pressure will lead to some change.

“I think they’ll be more responsive,” he said. “The people will hold them more accountable. I hope people will hold them more accountable.”

@jeremywbeaman is a contributing writer for Yellowhammer News