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A Prisons Move Forward, Lawmakers Still Have Questions

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Some Alabama lawmakers say they still have questions about Gov. Kay Ivey’s possible selection of private companies to build three state prisons, a process that so far has largely excluded the Legislature.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News he plans to send Ivey’s office a letter this week asking if contracting out prison services is an option she’s considering or in bids recently submitted to the Alabama Department of Corrections.

“I’m just going to ask point blank,” Ward said. “I am going to be 100% opposed to privately run prisons.

“That’s a big policy shift that the Legislature should be involved in.”

Ivey has previously said the prisons would be leased from developers, but run and staffed by ADOC.

“The state will operate the prisons,” Ivey spokeswoman Gina Maiola said Monday.

“Gov. Ivey remains focused on leaving Alabama better than she found it, and that includes addressing the long-neglected challenges facing the prison system – something that requires a multifaceted solution,” Maiola said. “One part of the equation is making improvements to our prison infrastructure, which is why she remains committed to moving this construction process forward. Receiving the proposals is the next step in the process, and Governor Ivey, from day one, has been committed to transparency and accountability.

“Our Office and the ADOC will continue keeping the public informed at each stage. Governor Ivey has sought to tackle this issue head-on and make it a priority of her administration.”

Ward said as of Sunday, he hadn’t seen the proposals by two companies to build the three large prisons for men. The Alabama Department of Corrections opened the bids on Friday. The previously reported cost estimate is about $900 million.

The Associated Press reported that ADOC declined its request to make the proposals public, saying that a “confidential evaluation period has begun.” The prison system said the successful developer team or teams will be announced this summer and the financial terms will be announced in the fall.

The three prisons will replace most of the smaller existing facilities around the state.

House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said Monday he didn’t know if lawmakers would see the contracts before they’re signed.

“I haven’t been a part of any talks or negotiations with the governor as far as contracts go so it would be premature for me to speak about that.

“… I have said from the very beginning that the legislative body needs to be aware and given information as it flows in so that we can be working as a team and I still believe that. Its important that we all work together as a team on this.”

The U.S. Justice Department last year said violent and crowded conditions in Alabama prisons violate the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment. The Justice Department said understaffing and overcrowding were a primary driver of the violence, but also mentioned the need to improve facility conditions.

Lawmakers expect Ivey to call a special session of the Legislature later this year to address a package of criminal justice-related bills that didn’t pass in the regular session because of a COVID-19-caused hiatus.

“Obviously, we do not want the federal authorities taking over our prisons,” Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said. “I don’t want that to happen. Whatever we need to do to address the concerns of the federal judge, we need to do that and I do think we’re working on things, including construction of new prisons but we’ll see where that ends up. But yes I do believe you have to call a special session.”

Ivey can enter into the lease contracts without the Legislature’s approval.

Ward said some in the Legislature want the state to build the new prisons because it’d be cheaper. But previous attempts to do that have fallen apart in the State House because of territorial disputes about where the new prisons — which are large employers — will be located and what existing sites will be closed.

McCutcheon said more information is needed about costs of leasing prisons compared to building them.

“And there I go back to the fact of, how much do we need, what would be the lease payment versus a borrowing and building our own facilities, and these are numbers that we need to see and I stand firm on that.”

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, said lawmakers have to be part of the process.

“I think we’re all very leery about spending $1 billion-plus on prisons and at the end of the day it still won’t be adequate enough room in the state, we’ll still be overcrowded,” he said. “If the governor wants this to happen, we’re going to have to be part of this process.

“Only the Legislature can appropriate money.”

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Small Business Resources During Coronavirus Outbreak

The Alabama Small Business Commission has created a website to assist small business owners during the coronavirus pandemic. From tax relief to SBA loans to unemployment benefits, there are various avenues of assistance available at the federal, state, and local levels. You can visit the website by clicking the link here-https://atlasalabama.gov

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Alabama Legislative Session On Hold Due to Coronavirus

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. (WIAT) — State lawmakers say the coronavirus has put the 2020 Alabama legislative session on pause, and it may stay that way until the end of the year.

Lawmakers plan to pass a joint rule Tuesday that would adjourn the legislative session until the end of April. The rule would allow them to continue the session without meeting. When legislators meet to vote, they’ll be practicing social distancing.

“It’s going to be a logistical nightmare. Department of public health is going to test each one of us for fevers when we go in. We have hand sanitizers, cleaning materials. So this is a new world for all of us,” Sen. Cam Ward said.

The legislative session is not mandatory and legislators who feel attending may put their health at risk are encouraged to stay home. Rep. Neil Rafferty said many of his colleagues will likely take that precaution.

“I do yes, particularly because we have some older members that might be at a higher risk category of complications with COVID-19,” Rafferty said.

Gov. Kay Ivey is asking all residents to follow state and federal mandates to stop the spread. “So now, and for the foreseeable future, please consider staying safe at home,” Ivey said.

Because of these guidelines, state lawmakers say they likely won’t be able to pass non-emergent bills this year.

“Most likely, this pandemic has put an end to any legislative agenda outside of what we call the highly important bills until next year,” Ward said.

“It has put an end to it, for right now. To where we can’t introduce, pass, or debate any legislation,” Rafferty said.

The last day lawmakers can meet in a legislative session is May 18. Ivey would then need to call a special session for legislators to introduce and pass bills in which they are unable to meet before their deadline.


 

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Medical Marijuana Bill Passes Senate

By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. - The Alabama Senate on Thursday passed legislation to allow and regulate medical marijuana after five hours of debate.

The bill’s sponsor, Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, said he believes medical marijuana can bring pain relief to many Alabamians. He's worked on the legislation for more than a year and addressed a variety of groups' concerns.

“This is going to be grown by the people of Alabama, dispensed by the people of Alabama and is for patients of Alabama,” Melson said. “It’s not about getting high, it’s about getting well.”

The final vote was 22 yeas and 11 nays. The legislation now goes to the House.

The “Compassion Act” creates a nine-member Medical Cannabis Commission to oversee regulations and licensing for medical marijuana cultivators, processors and dispensaries and requires a statewide seed-to-sale tracking system for all cannabis in the state.

More than a dozen qualifying medical conditions and symptoms are listed in the bill, including post-traumatic stress disorder, autism spectrum disorder, Crohn’s disease, HIV/AIDS-related nausea and cancer-related chronic pain and nausea. Patients must have the okay of approved doctors to qualify.

For a doctor to prescribe a patient to use medical marijuana it has to be proven that all other methods of treatment are unsuccessful.

Sen. Larry Stutts, R-Tuscumbia, was a main voice of opposition during debate on the Senate floor.

“We’re calling it a medicine, but as a physician I can’t write a prescription for it,” Stutts, a doctor, said. “This bill has the potential to have huge ramifications across the state.”

A number of amendments were added to the final bill during floor discussion.

Amendments from Melson require the commission set up rules and standards of how dispensary employees are to be trained and to cap the level of THC that can be prescribed to 75 mg. Previously there was no cap set.

Sen. Arthur Orr, R-Decatur, attempted to amend the bill further to cap the THC levels at 50 mg, but that amendment was defeated. Orr said he was worried about the safety of Alabamians using the drug and "wanted to error on the side of safety."

Orr attempted to further limit the list of qualifying conditions with an amendment, but it failed. At one point during the already lengthy debate, Orr began to filibuster the bill and threatened to kill the bill if he wasn’t allowed to air out his grievances with the legislation through the amendments he was offering.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, questioned Orr's intentions, asking if all his amendments would change his ultimate vote on the bill. Orr, who voted no, said his amendments were aimed at making a potential law better.

“If I wanted to stop the bill, by golly, I would do it,” Orr said. “We could just take a whole lot of time to do it. We could take days of the legislative time, your time, everybody’s time in the chamber, and that’s our prerogative, and I’ve got enough SOB in me, I would do it.”

The bill does not allow for the smoking or vaping of marijuana or edible forms of the drug. However, treatment in the form of pills, gelatinous cubes, gels, oils or creams, transdermal patches and nebulizers would be allowed.

Users would receive a state-issued medical cannabis card and an electronic patient registry would be created.

The bill allows for 34 total dispensaries in the state and mandates no more than 70 doses per patient at one time.

The marijuana would be grown in-state by farmers and the process to create the product would be conducted by Alabama businesses. An amendment from Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, was added that requires farmers who grow the crop to have at least 15 years of farming experience.

Two amendments from Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, were added that require at least 25% of the licensed dispensaries involved be a minority-owned.

“We are wanting to expand it and give more people an opportunity,” Singleton said.

An amendment from Sen. Garlan Gudger, R-Cullman, prevents the Medical Cannabis Commission from adding new qualifying conditions. Any new conditions would need to be approved by the Legislature.

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, added an amendment that includes menopause as a qualifying condition.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall sent a letter to legislators earlier this year saying he opposes the bill saying marijuana is an addictive substance and drew parallels with the ongoing opioid addiction crisis. He also noted that federal law continues to ban marijuana.

The Senate approved similar legislation last year but the bill faced more opposition in the House and was heavily amended to create a study commission on medical marijuana.

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, voted against it and said a major concern for him was allowing those who use medical marijuana to operate vehicles or heavy machinery.

"I just think those common-sense things are really important and kind of feels like the people of Alabama do as well," Reed told ADN. "Whether your for this or not, being able to make sure it's done appropriately and correctly."

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Tuscaloosa, voted against the bill and said he thinks passing this law will lead to allowing recreational marijuana in the state.

"Some want recreational use of marijuana to be legal, I believe this opens that door," Allen said. "This legislation is bad public policy. I remain concerned about its effects on law enforcement, and the safety of our drivers on our roads."

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham, voted against the bill and said he was worried about the well being of children in the state if medical marijuana was legalized.

"I believe we are doing irreparable damage to the children of our state," Roberts said. "If there was a way to expand Carly's Law or Lenny's Law, then I would be completely for that."

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham, supported the bill and said this will give people an alternative pain medication rather than resorting to opioid drugs.

"It really is time for us to start addressing medical issues rather than prescription drugs," Coleman-Madison said. "We know where that has gotten us with the opioid epidemic and we have really not been able to slow that down. This enables people to get the help that they need. I mean, it's across the board, young and old and everyone so I think it's a great bill."

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, voted yes for the bill because he said it has the potential in helping tackle the opioid abuse crisis in the state.

"The fact that it's shown that the use of marijuana is much better in dealing with people who are in pain, based on the research that I've seen, and being non-addictive and I think the crisis we're facing with opioids in the state and country, that is the issue that resonated with me and why I supported the legislation," Marsh said.

Sen. Rodger Smitherman, D-Birmingham: Yes

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison, D-Birmingham: Yes

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster: Yes

Sen. Dan Roberts, R-Birmingham: No

Sen. Jabo Waggoner, R-Birmingham: Didn't vote

Sen. Shay Shelnutt, R-Trussville: No

Sen. Gerald Allen, R-Cottondale: No

Sen. Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro: Yes

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper: No

Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston: Yes

Sen. Andrew Jones, R-Centre: Yes

Sen. Jim McClendon, R-Springville: Yes

Copyright 2020 WBRC. All rights reserved.

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Viewpoint: Open Records Law Needed

Over the course of our mission, the BBJ regularly requests access to public records. Unfortunately, those requests often fall on deaf ears. And we’re not alone.

Members of the media and Alabama citizens regularly encounter situations where our local and state governments say they can’t provide records that are easily obtained in other states, including our neighbors. That’s unacceptable, especially in a state where so many politicians run on the ideals of transparency and open government.

It’s particularly problematic in terms of contracts, which Alabama officials often say they can’t provide due to nondisclosure agreements with private companies, proprietary information for those companies or similar reasons even though the companies involved know fully well that contracts with public entities are indeed public documents.

But that begs the question why our state and local governments – the customer in many of these contracts – are more willing to protect their vendors than their taxpayers and citizens.

If contracts aren’t open to inspection, how do we know our governments are getting a good deal? Unfortunately, we don’t. But contracts are just one part of the larger public records puzzle.

We’ve faced challenges seeking public records on a range of topics, from vendor agreements and incentives to even simple requests like copies of an annual budget. Many of our requests aren’t even in pursuit of controversial records. Often they are seeking data to aid in the BBJ’s efforts to provide local business intelligence and help our readers grow their businesses. To be fair, we do have plenty of local governments and state offices that do respect the public’s right to know, and we commend them.

But there are too many entities that aren’t taking their duties seriously. Instead, they are ignoring or outright refusing to allow the public or members of the media to inspect documents.

While they are rightfully to blame for those decisions, it’s important to note the role Alabama’s lackluster open records law plays in this situation.

Currently, public officials in Alabama have little incentive to comply with public records requests because the law is one of the weakest in the nation. They can essentially ignore the request and dare media outlets or members of the public to file suit to obtain records that should be available for public inspection. A bill, sponsored by Alabama Sen. Cam Ward, would change that. It would inject some common sense and checks and balances into the state’s public records law – the tools needed to hold officials accountable.

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Critical Infrastructure Legislation Introduced

State Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) and State Rep. Chip Brown (R-Mobile) on Thursday announced the filing of important legislation to bolster the protections of critical infrastructure assets in Alabama.

Companion bills filed in each chamber, Senate Bill 45 and House Bill 36 respectively, aim to amend a 2016 law which defined critical infrastructure in Alabama and created criminal penalties for unauthorized trespassing on such property.

The legislation filed Thursday adapts language from a variety of other states’ laws and adds the unauthorized use of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to the trespassing statute which is a Class A misdemeanor. The legislation also imposes a Class C Felony for individuals who “injure, remove, destroy, break or otherwise interrupt or interfere with the operations of a critical infrastructure asset” during the commission of unauthorized entry.

“This legislation is an important step in enhancing a bill I sponsored and passed in 2016,” Ward said in a statement.

Ward is the chairman of the Alabama legislature’s Committee on Energy Policy.

“Critical infrastructure assets are the backbone of our quality of life in America and we must do everything we can to have the proper legal protections in place,” he continued. “Damaging critical infrastructure is a serious offense which can lead to significant safety and environmental hazards as well as disrupt economic activity across the state, region and even the entire country. With this legislation, we will ensure we continue to provide the necessary protections for our domestic energy security in Alabama. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate on this important issue.”

Brown reinforced the importance of the legislation.

“Alabama is blessed to be the home of a variety of critical infrastructure assets across the state,” he stated. “Not only do these assets provide jobs to Alabamians, but they also support our day-to-day lives with the resources we often take for granted.”

“We must continue to be vigilant with our efforts to combat any potential threats to our critical infrastructure both domestically and abroad and that is why I am pleased to sponsor this legislation. I look forward to working with my colleagues in the House to ensure we are leading the way towards protecting one of the very pillars of our society – our critical infrastructure,” Brown concluded.

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Prison Commission Makes Recommendations

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Gov. Kay Ivey’s Study Group on Criminal Justice Policy has released its report on the state’s prison system and is making recommendations on how to address the challenges it faces.

Most of the policy recommendations surrounded reducing the recidivism rates.

There is a 30.7 percent recidivism rate for males and a 20.6 percent rate for females in the Alabama Department of Corrections. ADOC defines recidivism as an inmate who returns to the prison system within three years of release from prison.

The recommendations to reduce recidivism include providing more funding for in-custody educational programs. It would allow inmates to leave prison as productive members of society, the letter says.

The letter suggests providing inmates with educational incentives. For instance, the system would award some inmates with early release if they complete certain courses and maintain good behavior.

The study group heard hours of testimony from experts and family members throughout 2019. A common concern was that inmates did not have identification documents after being released, therefore, they could not obtain a job.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he wants the system to help inmates locate those documents before being released from prison.

“You walk out. They give you a check for $100. You get a bus ticket and you’re gone,” he said.

Ward said this increases the chances of someone returning to prison.

The specific recommendations throughout the letter are laid out in three areas: DOC operations, sentencing reforms, and recidivism reduction.

You can read all the details of the letter with the recommendations HERE.

You can read a compilation of additional details HERE.

Ward said several pieces of legislation will be drafted to resolve these issues. The legislative session begins Feb. 4.

Copyright 2020 WSFA 12 News. All rights reserved.

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Prison Study Commission Holds Final Meeting

Alabama legislators on Tuesday wrapped a study group on prison issues and possible reforms, including a renewed focus on programs such as in-prison educational opportunities and diversion programs that legislators believe could bring "long-term solutions" but acknowledged would be expensive for the state to implement.  

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said he believes there is bipartisan support to address Alabama's embattled prison system, a subject of ongoing lawsuits and a searing Department of Justice investigation last spring. The study group is expected to deliver a report to Gov. Kay Ivey before the legislative session begins on Feb. 4.

Community corrections and diversion programs aimed at addressing offenders before they make it into the prison system were broadly discussed Wednesday, as well as increasing educational opportunities for prisoners that would provide benchmarks to work toward for parole as well as reduce the risk of prisoners re-offending.

"We've got the growth in the General Fund budget now to do it. But you've got to have the political will to commit yourself to do it. But for pennies on the dollar, you're saving taxpayers money," Ward said, pointing to data that shows recidivism drops dramatically when prisoners are better equipped to re-enter society. Ward says the state currently spends about $12 million on prison education, a fraction of the $1.8 billion General Fund budget. "Why not invest that money on the front end, so on the back end we're not making them a permanent burden on the taxpayers."

Legislators cautioned against allowing a piecemeal approach to community corrections and diversion programs, which Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, said have sometimes drawn offenders into a vicious cycle of court costs from which they can't emerge. 

Ward, who finished a diversion program following a DUI arrest in 2015, agreed.

"I paid about $3,500 total to be in that program," Ward said. "But I bet I have a lot of neighbors who couldn’t write that check. And that’s a problem. I do think we need diversion programs in every county, but I think we’re going to have to pay for it."

Before the study group began, a rally for prison reform gathered outside of the Alabama State House. Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition of advocates, legal groups and individuals directly impacted by incarceration, have increasingly called for outside oversight of prison reform initiatives.

“We call on Governor Ivey and state leaders to have the courage to break our state’s addiction to incarceration,” LaTonya Tate, executive director of Alabama Justice Initiative, said. “As a former parole officer for nearly a decade, I can say with certainty that Alabama cannot keep up these practices. Our system is inhumane and it doesn’t increase public safety.” 

Dig Deeper

Prison woes in Alabama

Lethal violence in Alabama prisons increased year-over-year in 2019, the Montgomery Advertiser reported last week, with at least 12 men killed in inmate-on-inmate assaults and another two men killed by prison guards in incidents currently under investigation, according to Alabama Department of Correction's reports. Some advocacy and legal groups such as the Equal Justice Initiative believe homicide numbers are higher, and Department of Justice investigators this spring revealed ADOC has miscategorized and undercounted homicides in the past. 

Alabama prisons are overcrowded and understaffed, a lethal combination stakeholders say has been decades in the making. 

"I appreciate what Commissioner Dunn has worked with and the lack of resources often times he has been given," said Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody. "I know he’s been to the Legislature several times, we’ve turned him down, and here we are."

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, plans to again introduce legislation that would build an oversight framework for the Department of Corrections. England said the "forest fire" of conditions in ADOC was burning long before Dunn's administration, but he believes the Legislature should spearhead oversight of "periodic recording requirements" so the public knows what's going on inside of prison facilities. 

Ward said he would support the legislation.

"We should have monthly reporting requirements, real data, real facts," Ward said. "I should haven’t to go to the journalists out there to get data that we as legislators should have."

The AFJ Coalition on Tuesday afternoon released their own list of potential actions the state could take to reduce Alabama's prison population, including:

  • Reforming the state's Habitual Felony Offender Act, under which hundreds of people are serving life without parole for non-homicide crimes
  • Reforming substance abuse laws
  • Reducing sentences for nonviolent crimes such as controlled substance possession or property theft
  • Addressing a drop in paroles granted under new Alabama's Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, which the coalition say could cause the prison population to "skyrocket" 

"Criminal justice reform will not happen in one session," Ward said. "It will take multiple sessions and multiple issues. If we’re serious about it, we’re going to have to invest the money, the political capital and the time to do it. I think it will be the biggest issue of the session."

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Pass Bill Denying Bail for Some Then Embark on Real Bail Reform

This is an opinion column.

If it saves one life.

That’s state Sen. Cam Ward’s mantra after sharing plans Tuesday to introduce a bill during the upcoming legislative session proposing an amendment to our arcane, outdated and embarrassment of an Alabama Constitution that would strip bail from those charged with specific serious crimes.

The idea being that some people—while still innocent, at least theoretically, until proven guilty—should not be walking our streets while awaiting trial for murder, rape, kidnapping, sodomy, sexual abuse or torture, and human trafficking. (Capital murder defendants are already denied bail.)

The idea being that because numerous crimes, especially homicides, are retaliatory the bail restriction just might keep the defendant alive.

The idea that some victims we came to know and mourn ourselves might be alive today, others may not have been victimized by violence.

If it saves one life.

The Alabaster Republican was motivated, he says, by the October death of 19-year-old Aniah Blanchard. Ibraheem Yazeed is charged with the kidnapping and murder of the Auburn-area college student; he was out on a $280,000 bond after being charged in a previous case with two counts of kidnapping, two counts of robbery and one count of attempted murder.

The woman awaiting trial as a co-defendant in the kidnapping and murder of Kamille “Cupcake” McKinney, also last October, was out on bond, too, after being charged with kidnapping her three children from DHR in a previous case.

Then just Tuesday, two Birmingham brothers, both out on bond for murder, were arrested for allegedly shooting two people in Bessemer in December.

State Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile introduced a similar bill last March; it passed the House but died in the dark of the state Senate. He plans to reintroduce it, too, during this session.

I hope one of them passes. (It takes a three-fifths vote in the House and Senate.) I hope our lawmakers display rare bipartisanship and allow us to vote on changing our abomination of a state Constitution.

So do Yashiba and Elijah Blanchard, Aniah’s parents (full disclosure: close friends, too). In a statement released on their behalf, the couple shared they “hope state legislators utilize their resources and power to enact legislation…that protects citizens in similar circumstances [as their daughter].”

Not everyone agrees, and I understand. I understand their trepidation and angst. Because, on the surface, the measure seems like reform in reverse, a Michael Jackson moonwalk, critics charge, that could lead to more people being left behind bars before their day in court.

There is no evidence proving that though, not in the handful of states that enacted similar laws. Not in Arizona, where someone charged with a felony can be denied bail if “the court finds after a hearing … that there is clear and convincing evidence that the person charged poses a substantial danger to another person or the community…”

Both bills to be introduced in Montgomery next month contain similar language requiring prosecutors to meet some standard before bail can be denied.

“The way you have to do these bills, you have to make them narrowly tailored,” Ward, who serves on the Senate Judiciary Committee, told me on Wednesday. “You can’t say ‘any violent offenders’ or you run into constitutional problems.

“This is probably a small number of people we’re talking about—extreme cases. I don’t think we’ll see a huge spike in [bail denial] for any population.”

Three states—New Jersey, Alaska, and New York—have variously abolished cash bonds, relying instead on a point system to determine if a defendant should be released, held or something in between. Like, say, house arrest. Last year, California eliminated cash bail altogether.

I hope debate on the Alabama bills spark a wider, and more vital, effort to finally reform a system never intended to be a $2 billion industry nationwide that overly incarcerates those who simply cannot afford to pay. And truly, a system that does not anymore guarantee a court appearance than those released without a cash bond.

Never intended to penalize the innocent (and poor)-until-proven-guilty, as it does now. Never intended to be all-but extortion. (AL.com’s Anna Claire Vollersreports more than 75 municipal courts in Alabama over the past few years have reformed their bail practices so that poor people charged with minor offenses don’t have to remain in jail when they can’t afford to post bond.)

In its origins, during England’s Anglo Saxon period (410-1066), “money bail” was simply a means to settle disputes. No money changed hands. A defendant only had to demonstrate their ability to pay the victim if the defendant ran off—a surety, usually a relative, guaranteed payment.

It didn’t start to become an industry until the early years of the 20th centurywhen it became harder to find a relative willing to sign and easier to skip town. Then the courts stepped in, requiring bonds to be paid in full before release.

By the mid-1960s, the bail bond industry was an entrenched component of a system just beginning to be fueled and fed by the systemic targeting of African Americans for what would now be considered relatively minor, victimless drug offenses.

Or, better yet, an epidemic worthy of treatment, not judicial mistreatment.

In Norman Pannell vs United States, a bail bonding case argued before the U.S. Court of Appeals, District of Columbia Circuit in 1963, Judge J. Skelly Wright stated in a concurring majority opinion:

”Certainly the professional bondsman system … is odious at best. The … professional bondsmen hold the keys to the jail in their pockets. They determine for whom they will act as surety — who in their judgment is a good risk. The bad risks, in the bondsmen's judgment, and the ones who are unable to pay the bondsmen's fees, remain in jail. The court and the commissioner are relegated to the relatively unimportant chore of fixing the amount of bail.”

Now the immeasurably very important chore of protecting us all and continuing to reform our broken system falls to our state lawmakers, then, hopefully, to us.

“If it saves one life,” Ward says, “It’s worth, it.”

A voice for what’s right and wrong in Birmingham, Alabama (and beyond), Roy’s column appears in The Birmingham News and AL.com, as well as in the Huntsville Times, the Mobile Register. Reach him at rjohnson@al.com and follow him at twitter.com/roysj

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Sen. Ward Sponsors Bill to Deny Bail to Most Violent Offenders

State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said today he would propose an amendment to the Alabama Constitution to take away the right to bail for defendants accused of some of the most serious crimes.

Ward said he was motivated, in part, by the death of college student Aniah Blanchard in October. Ibraheem Yazeed, who is charged with the kidnapping and murder of Blanchard, had been released on a $280,000 bond on two counts of kidnapping, two counts of robbery and one count of attempted murder when he was arrested in the Blanchard case.

“This was somebody who shouldn’t have been on the streets,” Ward said. “Had this person not been on the street, that girl would be alive today.”

Section 16 of the Alabama Constitution affirms the right to bail except for those charged with capital offenses.

Ward’s bill, which he said he would introduce for the legislative session that starts in three weeks, would say that people charged with murder, rape, sodomy, sexual abuse, sexual torture, human trafficking and kidnapping could not be released on bond before their trial.

If approved by three-fifths of the members of the Senate and House it would go on the ballot for voters to have the final say on whether to change the state Constitution.

Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, is also sponsoring a bill to amend the state constitution to allow more people charged with serious crimes to be held without bail. Brown’s amendment would expand the exception to a right to bail to cover Class A felonies involving danger to the victim, like first-degree rape, first-degree kidnapping, first-degree robbery, and murder charges that are not capital offenses. Brown sponsored the bill last year, too, but it did not pass.

Ward said he would expect his bill to be challenged in court if it becomes law.

“But I’m not worried about the constitutionality in the courts,” Ward said. "I’ve seen it upheld in other states. It’s constitutional. It’s been said so by the courts. But more importantly than folks filing lawsuits, it’s about the public safety. Victims of crime."

The Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”

Ward chairs the Judiciary Committee in the Senate and has been a leader in criminal justice reform efforts in Alabama.

“I do believe in reforming our system,” Ward said. “It’s broken. But at the same time, it’s a balancing act. It can’t be all one way or the other. And this is one of those that I truly believe should put the victims first and public safety first. And I think we should always keep that in mind when we’re dealing with criminal justice in Alabama.”

Ward is serving his third term in the Senate after two terms in the House. He is running for the Republican nomination for a seat on the Alabama Supreme Court against Justice Greg Shaw.

Ward said he studied laws in other states and said his proposal is similar to Arizona’s.

The legislative session starts Feb. 4.

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