10 months ago

Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy yields positive recommendations

It should come as no surprise that our state is in need of serious criminal justice reform. In July, Governor Kay Ivey established a Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy, and it has been an honor to serve as chair and representative on her behalf as we seek solutions for the complex issues facing our state.

In the ensuing seven months, our Study Group has diligently pursued the task the governor set out before us – researching policies and programs the state of Alabama might implement to ensure the long‑term sustainability of our prison system without jeopardizing public safety.

We have heard from over 30 speakers — including a former inmate who told a heartbreaking, yet hopeful story of redemption; faith‑based and secular advocacy organizations who have relentlessly helped incarcerated people find new lives both behind and beyond the walls of prison; and government officials from every branch and level of government looking for holistic solutions to our state’s complex problems. Along with these various presentations, we have also received and reviewed almost 900 pages of submitted materials.

By the time our Study Group convened for its first meeting in July, Governor Ivey’s administration had already begun taking steps to address the long‑standing challenges facing our prison system. But the fact remains: these challenges are exceedingly complex. They run the gamut from more conventional issues, such as the elimination of contraband weapons and drugs, to more complex issues, such as recruiting and retaining staff and confronting factors that contribute to the size of the inmate population.

I acknowledge that I heard the views of naysayers who doubted the Study Group would bring forth significant and meaningful proposals for change. However, due to the efforts of my colleagues, especially our very impressive legislative members from both sides of the aisle, this report will prove the doubters wrong as it sets forth significant answers to these concerns; it offers solutions that are not just possible, they are within our grasp. While my report outlines many recommendations, the broadest areas of consensus are in rehabilitation and reduction of recidivism. If our group succeeds in its mission in this area, the number of inmates coming back into the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) facilities will be reduced, thus lowering the burden on the system, reducing costs to the taxpayers and increasing public safety.

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First and foremost, there is complete agreement that the legislature should take a more active role in assisting ADOC in its mission to improve correctional facilities across the state. ADOC should report information to the Legislative Prison Oversight Committee; thereby allowing lawmakers to make informed decisions regarding policies that will help improve conditions within our state’s many facilities. This transparency, in combination with an increase to the ADOC budget to hire more officers and increase safety mechanisms for inmates and staff, including measures to interrupt the flow of contraband, will dramatically improve the state of our correctional institutions.

Bennet Wright, executive director of the Alabama Sentencing Commission, gave an insightful presentation to the group regarding the current demographics of the prison population, previous sentencing changes, and the complexities of sentencing laws in the state of Alabama. While proposals for sentencing changes will not effectuate a major drop in the prison population, they are rooted in prudence and fairness that can cause meaningful change.

For example, a formerly incarcerated man who now ministers to those in prison and out after release spoke at our December meeting about his experience as someone who was directly affected by the complexities within our criminal justice system. Through a now-repealed statutory remedy, he was able to have his sentenced reduced so he could return to society. Since his release, he has led a ministry that helps inmates and those who have been released to find faith and regain a sense of purpose. Unfortunately, this remedy was repealed in 2015. While its reinstatement may not affect a significant number of inmates, it is our belief that it should again be available.

As evidenced by my report, our group had the most enthusiastic consensus regarding support for rehabilitation and reducing recidivism. As an example, Ingram State Technical College, the only college in the country that exclusively serves an incarcerated population, requires more funding to expand its much-needed workforce training programs. Providing those who are incarcerated the ability to participate in training of skills and, in turn, matching them with a job is essential to ensure they are successful post‑release.

A separate concern relates to the need to incentivize inmates with the possibility of an early release if they maintain good disciplinary records and complete job training courses and receive workforce certifications. Finally, our state must give statutory authority to ADOC so that it can provide identification to inmates upon release which will assist in a successful re‑entry.

We realize that these recommendations will not solve all of the longstanding challenges facing Alabama’s criminal justice system in one legislative session or one year. Nevertheless, I am confident that the work of my colleagues will stand as a great starting point to build on the Ivey administration’s existing efforts and commit this state to a course of action that will ensure the long‑term sustainability of our prison system while also enhancing public safety.

The time for action is now. We dare not abide by a status quo that risks the potential for costly and disruptive intervention by federal authorities.

Champ Lyons, Jr. is a former Associate Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court (1998‑2011). He is a graduate of Harvard College and the University of Alabama School of Law. He is chair of the Governor’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy

8 hours ago

State Sen. Elliott: ‘I am not interested in discussing’ the I-10 Mobile Bay proposal until we have a new governor, ALDOT director

According to a report last week, efforts were underway for the Eastern Shore Metropolitan Planning Organization (MPO) to put a new I-10 Mobile Bay Bridge proposal back on its Transportation Improvement Program (TIP) after being removed in 2019 to prevent the Alabama Department of Transportation (ALDOT) from proceeding with a controversial toll bridge proposal.

Under ALDOT’s public-private partnership plan, backed by Gov. Kay Ivey, travelers across the bridge that would have connected Mobile and Baldwin Counties would have paid $6 each way.

State Sen. Chris Elliott (R-Daphne), whose district is adjacent to the proposed project’s site, expressed his shock the proposal was back on the table during an appearance on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “Midday Mobile.” He also signaled his distrust of Ivey and ALDOT Director John Cooper for the way they had proceeded in the past.

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“[I] was a little bit taken aback that was even being brought up again — not because the project is not needed, that is for sure,” he said, “not because we don’t need to figure out a way to move people and commerce back and forth and back and forth across the region a whole lot easier and more efficiently. But just because of the manner in which this was handled by the governor and her administration. But I just cannot believe it is even being seriously discussed again.”

Elliott argued the Eastern Shore MPO’s decision to take it out of the TIP was the “last line of defense” for residents and elected officials that opposed the project. He said given that the Ivey administration was willing to proceed despite residents’ wishes, he was not interested in discussing the project until there was a new governor and ALDOT director.

“[T]o be clear — what has happened, the news is this will be going back on the Eastern Shore MPO’s visionary list,” Elliott said. “That puts it back into the MPO’s plan for consideration once a planning source has been identified. And their caveat is the funding source has not yet been identified. Of course, that is where we got hung up last time. But I’m going to tell you — the bigger issue here is not the funding source. It is not the need of the bridge. It is that the MPO, the Eastern Shore MPO specifically, was the last line of defense to keep this from happening. As the former chairman of the MPO, I know that all too well. That was how it got stopped. This governor and this ALDOT director were more than happy to proceed with a funding scheme and mechanism that was completely unfair for residents of coastal Alabama, that was objected to by every elected official I know of. And yet, they were perfectly willing to proceed with it.”

“So, I would say the issue with this project is not necessarily the need for it or even the funding mechanism for it — although that is obviously a problem if it involves a toll,” he continued. “But rather — it is an issue of trust with this administration, with this ALDOT director. That, if you will forgive the pun, that bridge is burned. It has not been rebuilt, and I doubt that it will be.”

“I am not interested in discussing this bridge or a Bayway proposal at all until we have a new governor and a new ALDOT director,” Elliott added.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.

9 hours ago

NFIB Alabama: Small Business Saturday especially important this year

It’s especially important this year for people to shop small on Small Business Saturday, says National Federation of Independent Business (NFIB) Alabama State Director Rosemary Elebash.

A release outlined that Alabamians can do so in person, online or over the phone.

Small Business Saturday, as it is annually, is this coming Saturday, the one immediately following Thanksgiving. However, this year’s Small Business Saturday may be the most important one ever, as hardworking small business owners and employees continue to be hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The coronavirus is taking a toll on Alabama’s small businesses,” Elebash stated. “Governor Ivey has gradually eased many of the restrictions put in place to keep customers and employees safe, but small business owners say it may be months, perhaps years, before the local economy fully recovers from the pandemic.”

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“Small business is the backbone of our economy, making up 99.4 percent of all employers in the state. And while it makes headlines whenever a big corporation adds a few hundred jobs here or there, small businesses are responsible for a net increase of 23,841 jobs statewide in 2019,” she continued.

Small Business Saturday 2020 comes as a coalition led by the Business Council of Alabama (BCA) — and including NFIB Alabama — continues to undertake the Keep Alabama Open campaign.

“Our small businesses were doing well at the beginning of the year,” Elebash added. “Since spring, however, many people have lost their jobs or had their hours greatly reduced, while employers have had to learn new safety procedures and invest in additional equipment from hand sanitizer stations and face masks to plastic shields at the checkout. Some small businesses intended to close temporarily and wound up closing for good.”

“That’s why we need to make a point of supporting local shops and restaurants, not just on Small Business Saturday but throughout the holiday shopping season,” she explained. “If you can’t visit them in person, then order online or place your order by phone and take advantage of local delivery or curbside pickup. Or, buy gift cards that you can redeem once the crisis is over.”

“Alabama’s economy is built on its small businesses,” Elebash concluded. “Without our support, we could lose them, and that would be bad for everyone.”

RELATED: Why Small Business Saturday really matters in 2020

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

10 hours ago

Alabama Power joins industry partners to raise awareness on scams

Alabama Power partnered with utilities across the nation through Utilities United Against Scams (UUAS) to recognize the fifth annual Utility Scam Awareness Day on Wednesday, Nov. 18. Utility Scam Awareness Day is part of International Scam Awareness Week, an advocacy and awareness campaign focused on educating customers and exposing tactics used by scammers.

“Alabama Power is joining with our partners on Utility Scam Awareness Day with one goal in mind – to protect our customers against scams,” said Alisa Summerville, Customer Service Center director for Alabama Power. “We’ve seen a higher number of scammers trying to take advantage of our customers during the coronavirus pandemic, and this is another opportunity to equip our customers with information to identify and combat scams.”

Alabama Power is sharing tips to help customers protect themselves from false tactics used by scammers. Customers should know that Alabama Power:

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  • Will never call to demand an immediate payment.
  • Will never call to request bank or credit card information.
  • Will never come to your door to demand an immediate payment.

Here are ways to spot scams from Alabama NewsCenter on Vimeo.

Customers with any questions about the status of their Alabama Power account should not hesitate to call Customer Service at 1-800-245-2244. The automated voice system is available 24 hours a day to check account balances and status. Customers can reach a Customer Service agent weekdays from 7 a.m. to 9 p.m. at 1-800-245-2244.

“A simple tip for our customers: If you are unsure if a call is a scam, hang up and contact our Customer Service team at 1-800-245-2244,” Summerville added.

UUAS, a consortium of more than 145 U.S. and Canadian electric, water and natural gas utilities and their respective trade associations, continues to build awareness of common scams and new scam tactics being used during the pandemic. Through its work and with the help of customer reporting, UUAS has succeeded in taking out of operation nearly 6,000 toll-free numbers used by scammers against utility customers.

“It is no surprise that scammers have been seeking to exploit the heightened anxiety of people coping with the pandemic,” said UUAS founder and Executive Committee Chairman Jared Lawrence. “I am proud to report that UUAS education efforts and utilities well-publicized customer testimonials have prevented a drastic increase in victims. However, the relentless attempts by these criminals make it clear that we must continue to actively work to protect our customers and to keep scammers from casting confusion on our pandemic recovery messages.”

The Federal Trade Commission website provides additional information about protecting personal information and other information regarding impostor scams.

Visit www.utilitiesunited.org for more information and tips on how customers can protect themselves from impostor utility scams. Follow along with UUAS on Twitter and Facebook.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)

13 hours ago

University of South Alabama leads program to address wastewater treatment

The University of South Alabama will lead on a pilot program funded with a $710,000 grant from Columbia World Projects to address wastewater treatment in the rural Black Belt of Alabama. The project aims to demonstrate that better wastewater treatment systems can yield health, economic and environmental benefits for rural communities in the United States and around the world.

“The lack of wastewater management in the rural Black Belt is fundamentally a public health issue,” said Dr. Kevin White, professor and chair of the USA department of civil, coastal and environmental engineering. “It’s also about the lack of a critical developed world infrastructure that allows for economic growth and development, environmental protection, and public health protection.”

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The project is a collaboration between South, the University of Alabama, the University of North Carolina, the University of California, Irvine, communities in Alabama’s Black Belt region, the Consortium for Alabama Rural Water & Wastewater and state and federal officials.

White has studied wastewater treatment for 25 years and has been able to bring academia, government officials, state agencies and the private sector to the table to address the problem connected with poor infrastructure.

In addition to the initial award, Columbia World Projects will match up to $5 million raised separately. White and his colleague Dr. Mark Elliott, associate professor of civil, construction and environmental engineering at the University of Alabama recently submitted a $5 million proposal to the United States Department of Agriculture they hope can be used as a match.

“Finally, with some projects funded, we are beginning to make a difference,” White said. “If not for COVID-19, many onsite systems would have been installed in the spring. But soon both onsite and clusters of homes in Hale, Wilcox, and Marengo counties will have functional sewer.”

Alabama’s Black Belt historically includes 17 counties that stretch from southwest of Tuscaloosa across the state to the Georgia line southeast of Auburn. Named for its dark impermeable soil that does not support standard septic systems.

The project calls for installing and testing new wastewater treatment systems at select pilot site clustered and decentralized, connecting neighboring homes or businesses in a single system that collects, treats and re-uses water, reducing the cost of upkeep.

Data on how to adopt such treatment systems will be collected and published on an open-source platform, so that governments and rural communities worldwide can benefit from what is learned.

“I think we are on our way to making good things happen. Better public health protection, better environmental health protection, better economic development outlook,” White said.

(Courtesy of the University of South Alabama)

14 hours ago

ALS diagnosis drives AI engineer to build better eye-activation software

We see it in the movies all the time: the computer whiz furiously typing at his keyboard to bypass the security system or open the un-openable door for the hero. For real computer whizzes, such as Dustin Fast, computer programming is not that dramatic, but Fast can do things on a computer keyboard that are beyond the skills of most people.

Rather, he used to be able to do so.

Fast, an Army veteran who spent nearly a year in Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division, works for Boeing in Huntsville as an artificial intelligence software engineer. He writes code all day long, and he is good at it. He uses a lot of complex key strokes and shortcuts in his coding, many he designed himself. Until he began to notice that his right hand was not working quite right.

“My right hand was getting stiffer, and it ached,” Fast said. “I thought it had to do with sitting at a computer all day. I thought it was carpal tunnel syndrome.”

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He lost the ability to grip things with that hand and had muscle tremors up his right arm. A physical therapist recommended he see a neurologist. In March he saw Dr. Peter King, a professor in the Department of Neurology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and an expert in neuromuscular disease. King told Fast his condition was not carpal tunnel syndrome, but something much worse. Fast had amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

ALS is a progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord, leading to the loss of muscle movement. With voluntary muscle action progressively affected, people eventually lose the ability to speak, eat, move and breathe.

For Fast, 38, loss of the ability to move his hands and arms would mean the loss of his career. The loss of his passion.

“Work is my happy place,” he said. “I’m surrounded by really smart people doing really amazing, really important work. Even with a diagnosis of ALS, I knew I wanted to keep working.”

So Fast looked into eye-activation software for computers. This software allows people with loss of mobility in their hands and arms to use a computer through eye-tracking technology. Users move a mouse and click based on where and how they look at the screen. The technology exists and is available. But for Fast, it has limitations.

“What is available on the market now is sufficient for someone who wants to send an email, surf the internet, do online shopping or watch a movie on their iPad,” he said. “It is not sophisticated enough for a programmer to write code, which is what I need.”

“Dustin told me that he had ideas on using artificial intelligence to improve eye-activation software,” King said. “He needed a structure to implement his ideas, mentors to help guide him and access to experts in fields outside computer programming. Fortunately, an option at UAB had just been put in place.”

UAB has created a Ph.D. program in neuroengineering, a collaboration between the School of Medicine and the School of Engineering. It is a first-of-its-kind program in Alabama and one of the only freestanding neuroengineering doctoral programs in the country.

By combining faculty expertise in neurobiology, neuroscience and engineering, the program will train a new generation of neuroengineers to advance understanding of neurodegenerative disorders and other brain diseases and develop novel therapeutics, neuroprosthetics and tools to restore lost brain function and improve patient outcomes.

King reached out to the co-directors of the program, Lynn Dobrunz, Ph.D., in neurobiology and Gregg Janowski, Ph.D., in engineering, along with Lori McMahon, Ph.D., the dean of the UAB Graduate School.

“Dustin Fast and his desire to create a better eye-activation software system fit perfectly with our program,” Dobrunz said. “We can link him to the experts he needs and give him the tools to accomplish his goal.”

Fast, who describes himself as a lifelong learner, will be the third enrollee in the new doctoral program and is a recipient of a Blazer Fellowship from the graduate school, awarded to top students to provide financial support.

“Typically, students take a variety of classes during their first year in a doctoral program while determining the project that will become the centerpiece of their educational experience,” Janowski said. “Dustin’s eye-activation project is already underway, and we will tailor the program to provide the base set of courses he will need while he continues work on that software.”

Fast says that current eye-activation software requires a user to look at an area on the screen for a specific time in order to activate a click. Some systems use autocorrect to finish a sentence that has been started when writing text.

“I don’t use a keyboard the way most other people do,” Fast said. “I need a tool that is intuitive and has the same throughput on a keyboard as my fingers did. There will be challenges, but I see the path to the solution. I have some possibilities in mind, and I believe I can solve the challenges.”

Fast says he will put his background in artificial intelligence and machine learning to use as key elements for his project.

“You could describe the brain as an extremely powerful computer,” he said. “It works by encoding information, very much the way machine learning works.”

Fast is scheduled to begin the doctoral program in January. Dobrunz and Jankowski are recruiting students for the fall 2021 semester. The program hopes to enroll five or six students each year.

“Dustin’s project is the kind of endeavor that could ultimately benefit many people, and we are committed to getting him the resources he needs,” Dobrunz said.

“Clearly there are potential benefits of his project for others with disabilities,” King said. “Improvement in eye-tracking software could have tremendous benefit for many people with neurodegenerative disease or loss of mobility from stroke, spinal injury or traumatic brain injury.”

“I am excited to begin the Ph.D. program,” Fast said. “This started as a way for me to continue working. Now it’s becoming a way for me to help make the world a better place.”

This story originally appeared on the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s UAB News website.

(Courtesy of Alabama NewsCenter)