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Attorney General Marshall Praises Passage of Fair Justice Act

(MONTGOMERY) – Attorney General Steven T. Marshall praised the Alabama Senate for passing the Fair Justice Act (SB 187) which helps streamline the appeals process for death sentences.  The legislation was introduced at the request of the Attorney General’s Office.

“I would like to thank Senator Cam Ward for sponsoring and shepherding this important legislation through the Alabama Senate,” said Attorney General Marshall.  “I also want to thank Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard for championing this much-needed reform of Alabama death sentence appeals which consolidates the time consideration of certain appeals.”

The Fair Justice Act streamlines the appeals process for those death row inmates seeking appeals based on claims of ineffective counsel or juror misconduct, known as Rule 32 post-conviction relief.   The legislation would require defendants sentenced to death in Alabama to seek Rule 32 post-conviction relief at the same time the defendant’s direct appeal is pending rather than waiting until the direct appeal has ended.

“The appellate process for capital cases is extremely lengthy,” said Attorney General Marshall.  “Under the current system, a capital defendant may wait up to one year after his direct appeal to file his Rule 32 petition and begin this lengthy appeal process.  The implementation of the Fair Justice Act could result in shortening the average time a death sentence is carried out by five to six years, saving the taxpayers well over $100,000 in total housing costs per inmate.  It also reduces the time victims must wait to see justice carried out in these capital murder cases.”

The Fair Justice Act would make the appeals process more efficient, while both maintaining the same opportunities for appellate review and enhancing representation that are provided to death-row inmates by requiring the appointment of counsel for purposes of seeking Rule 32 post-conviction relief within 30 days of the date the defendant is sentenced.   

The Fair Justice Act passed the Alabama Senate Tuesday night.

 

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Bentley Resigns as Governor

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley resigned Monday rather than face impeachment and pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor campaign violations that arose during an investigation of his alleged affair with a top aide.

In a remarkable fall, the mild-mannered 74-year-old Republican and one-time Baptist deacon stepped down as the sex-tinged scandal gathered force over the past few days. Legislators turned up the pressure by opening impeachment hearings Monday. Last week, the Alabama Ethics Commission cited evidence that Bentley broke state ethics and campaign laws and referred the matter to prosecutors.

"There've been times that I let you and our people down, and I'm sorry for that," Bentley said in the old House chamber of Alabama's Capitol after he pleaded guilty.

The violations were discovered during the investigation of his affair but were not directly related to it.

In court, Bentley appeared sullen and looked down at the floor. He stood up and said "yes, sir" in a gravelly voice as the judge read out the charges he was pleading guilty to.

One misdemeanor charge against Bentley stemmed from a $50,000 loan he made to his campaign in November that investigators said he failed to report until January. State law says major contributions should be reported within a few days. The other charge stemmed from his use of campaign funds to pay nearly $9,000 in legal bills for political adviser Rebekah Caldwell Mason last year.

"He did what he did, and he deserves now to be called a criminal," said Ellen Brooks, a retired district attorney overseeing the state investigation.

The resignation and guilty plea were a dramatic reversal from the man who on Friday stood on the Capitol steps and said he would not leave office because he had done nothing illegal.

The plea agreement specified that Bentley must surrender campaign funds totaling nearly $37,000 within a week and perform 100 hours of community service as a physician. The dermatologist also cannot seek public office again.

Bentley's successor is Lt. Gov. Kay Ivey, who became Alabama's second female governor. The first was Lurleen Wallace, wife of segregationist and four-term Gov. George C. Wallace. She ran as a surrogate for her still-powerful husband in 1966 when he couldn't seek re-election because of term limits. She won, but died in office in 1968.

"The Ivey administration will be open. It will be transparent. And it will be honest," Ivey said.

Bentley said in his statement that he no longer wanted to subject his family and staff "to the consequences that my past actions have brought upon them." His staff gave him a standing ovation as he entered and exited the old House chamber.

Bentley's resignation follows the ouster of former House Speaker Mike Hubbard, who left office in 2016 after being convicted on ethics charges, and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore, who was suspended from his post last year over an order opposing same-sex marriage.

Bentley, a staunch family-values conservative who won two terms partly because of his reputation for moral rectitude, was first engulfed in scandal last year after recordings surfaced of him making sexually charged comments to the 45-year-old Mason.

An investigative report prepared for the House Judiciary Committee and released last week said Bentley encouraged an "atmosphere of intimidation" to keep the story under wraps and directed law enforcement officers to track down and seize the recordings. The report portrayed the governor as paranoid and obsessed with trying to keep the relationship secret.

The committee on Monday started what was expected to be days of hearings.

Bentley lawyer Ross Garber had argued that impeachment should be reserved for only the "most grave misconduct," noting that only two U.S. governors have been impeached since 1929, and both were indicted for serious felonies.

"It is not unusual for elected officials to have ethics and campaign finance issues. In fact, many governors face these things. It is very rare, though, for legislators to try to leverage those issues to impeach a governor. In fact, it is simply not done," Garber told The Associated Press in an email.

The last U.S. governor to be impeached was Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich in 2009. He was removed from office and is now serving a prison sentence for conspiring to sell an appointment to President Barack Obama's vacant U.S. Senate seat.

The investigative report contained text messages that the governor sent to Mason. They were intercepted by Bentley's then-wife, Dianne Bentley, who was able to read the messages because they also showed up on the governor's state-issued iPad, which he had given her.

"I sure miss you. I need you. I want you. You are the only one," one message read.

Dianne Bentley divorced her husband in 2015 after 50 years of marriage.

Bentley denied having a physical relationship with his former aide, though in some of the recordings he talked about the pleasure he got from fondling her breasts.

At one point, according to the investigative report, the governor sent the head of his security detail to fetch the recording from his son Paul Bentley, who responded: "You ain't getting it." Dianne Bentley had secretly recorded her husband by leaving her phone on while she went for a walk.

The former first lady's chief of staff also charged that Bentley threatened her job because he believed she had helped his wife make the recordings.

Former Law Enforcement Secretary Spencer Collier, who a day after being fired by Bentley last year held a news conference where he publicly revealed the affair accusation, said he feels vindicated by the resignation and plea deal.

GOP leaders in the House and Senate called on Bentley to resign, as has the Alabama Republican Party's steering committee.

"It's really time for us to look ahead and start moving forward on more pressing matters," Republican Sen. Cam Ward said. "It was a constant distraction, one that was never going to change, and it's time for us to get back to work."

Two of Bentley's predecessors in the past three decades have been convicted of crimes: Republican Guy Hunt in the 1990s, for misusing funds, and Democrat Don Siegelman, who was convicted of bribery in 2006.

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Ivey Warmly Received As New Governor

AP-

Auburn University graduate Kay Ivey, twice elected as Alabama's  lieutenant governor, was sworn in as the state's second female governor Monday after Robert Bentley resigned ahead of an impeachment hearing.

Ivey already has the support of Lee County lawmakers who have pledged support to the transition in the state's highest office.

Auburn Rep. Joe Lovvorn attended Ivey's swearing-in as governor to show her Lee County is behind her, he said.

"It's a tough day in Alabama, but it's a new beginning in a lot of ways," Lovvorn said. "We've had this cloud over the state ever since the problems began, and I'm optimistic moving forward with the real business of the state."

Ivey graduated from Auburn in 1967 and becomes the state's first  female governor to rise through the political ranks on her own, as she was the first Republican to hold the office of lieutenant governor for two straight terms.

Alabama's first female governor was Lurleen Wallace, wife of four-term Gov. George C. Wallace. She ran as a surrogate for her still-powerful husband in 1966 when he couldn't seek re-election because of term limits. She won, but died in office in 1968. Her husband regained the governor's seat in 1970.

Ivey campaigned for Lurleen Wallace as an undergraduate student during her time at Auburn, according to previous Associated Press reports.

The 72-year-old Ivey is from Wilcox County, the same rural area where U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions grew up. First elected lieutenant governor in 2010, she was re-elected in 2014.

Ivey's biography shows her as an accomplished stateswoman who got her start in Alabama politics as a House clerk and later became the first Republican elected treasurer since Reconstruction. Although her current position carries respect, it wields little constitutional power besides being next in line to the executive office.

As the Senate's president and presiding officer, Ivey acts as a moderator who doesn't offer opinions on legislation but instead directs the procedural flow in her signature honey-dripping drawl, cutting off senators whose speeches have gone on too long or namedropping distinguished guests in the gallery.

“I’m very excited to work with Gov. Ivey and looking forward serving out this term,” said Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn. “And having someone in office that will be a champion for Alabama and economic development here in the state.”

In private, however, lawmakers say she doesn't spare them tough questions.

"She is well in-tune to the issues," said Sen. Cam Ward, an Alabaster Republican who's sponsoring a much debated bill to overhaul the state prison system. "I think she will be a steady hand for state government."

Ivey, who immediately assumed the role of the governor after Bentley's resignation, would hold that position until the next general election in 2018.

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Alabaster Residents Meet Kazach Delegation

ALABASTER- Alabaster residents Tom and Charlotte Laggy hosted a dinner at their home for six delegates from Kazakhstan as part of the Friendship Force Open World program on the evening of Sunday, April 9.

During the evening, state Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, led an informal discussion and answered questions about the legislation processes of Alabama and the U.S., as opposed to those in Kazakhstan.

According to Tom Laggy, he and his wife were able to act as hosts as members of the Birmingham chapter of Friendship Force, a non-profit organization that seeks to promote peace and understanding on an international level.

“When we go to another country, we stay in the homes of club members. We live with them, eat with them and follow their way of life,” Tom Laggy said.

Karima Akhmatova served as a facilitator for the delegates. Laggy said the six delegates, Aikyn Konurov, Aliya Saparov, Arman Yessenzholov, Assel Rakisheva and Botagoz Bontabayey, all have active roles in the Kazakh government.

On Monday, April 10, the six delegates traveled to Montgomery, where they observed a legislative session and met with Alabaster resident and former Alabama Republican Party Chairman Marty Connors.

Laggy said the visit was eye-opening for everyone involved, and served as an opportunity for two groups from different countries to learn about each other’s cultures.

“One of our members asked what they [the delegates] thought of America. They said they were surprised that there wasn’t a violent atmosphere and everyone was so friendly,” Laggy said. “I think a lot of people have this idea that our country is more violent than it is. They just saw normal Americans living their everyday lives.”

To learn more about the Friendship Force Birmingham chapter, visit Thefriendshipforceofbirminghamal.org. Meetings occur on the third Sunday of January, March, May, July, September and November at the Vestavia Civic Center.

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Prison Construction Bill Clears Senate

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The State Senate took significant steps today to solve the long-standing crisis in Alabama’s prisons by passing a measure to build up to three new prison facilities. Currently, Alabama’s prisons house far more inmates than originally intended, with the prisons bursting to over 170% of capacity. The proposal passed today, sponsored by Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), authorizes the Department of Corrections to enter lease agreements with counties to finance and construct the facilities, and establishes clear criteria for how Corrections will award the lease agreements.

As the second-largest expenditure in the state’s General Fund, the budget for all non-education state spending, the prison system is a significant and persistent fiscal strain on the state. For the current fiscal year, Corrections alone costs the state $496 million and consumes 22% of the General Fund budget.

“The state prison system is close to exploding the state budget,” said Ward. “We have numerous prisons that were built before the Vietnam War and some pre-date World War Two. The upkeep alone for these facilities is a bleeding hole in our budgets.”

Senate Bill 302 protects against waste or cost overruns by requiring Corrections to hire an outside project manager to oversee construction of the facilities, and limits the bond authority to $325 million. Governor Robert Bentley’s original prison construction plan from earlier in the year called for the building of four new prisons at a cost of $800 million.

“This plan will dramatically increase safety for our inmates and our correctional officers,” Ward remarked. “There have been too many instances over the past year of officers being assaulted and, in some cases, killed. The dormitory-style of housing at some of our prisons is particularly dangerous. Modern, cell-block facilities with high-tech cameras and better lines-of-sight will save lives.”

Alabama’s prison system is beset with challenges. Corrections is being sued in federal court and faces an imminent threat of federal takeover, similar to what has occurred in California, where federal courts have ruled that California’s prison conditions amounted to “cruel and unusual punishment,” a violation of the U.S. Constitution’s Eighth Amendment. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a lower court’s decision to place California in receivership, and ordered the state to lower its prison capacity to a 137.5%. Since the ruling, California’s prison system has essentially been run by the federal court system.

“The threat of a federal takeover is reduced if the courts see that the Legislature is serious about solving the problems our prison system faces, and getting our capacity down closer to 137.5%,” Ward said. “But it took the state decades to get in this hole, and it will take us time to climb out of it.”

Senate Bill 302 now goes to the House of Representatives for consideration.

Republican Senator Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, Chilton, Hale, and Jefferson Counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

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Compromise Prison Bill Offered

AL.com- Mike Cason

The latest version of the prison-building plan in the Alabama Legislature would allow for borrowing up to $775 million for up to three prisons and for renovation to existing prisons.

It would allow counties and cities to set up authorities to acquire property and issue bonds to build prison facilities that the authorities would lease to the Department of Corrections, using the lease payments to pay off the bonds.

DOC could enter lease agreements with up to three such authorities.

The $775 million bond cap would be reduced by $225 million for each prison facility that DOC leases from an authority.

The bill is the latest proposal resulting from negotiations that started with Gov. Robert Bentley's initiative to borrow $800 million to build four new prisons.

Bentley's plan called for closing most of the existing men's prisons and replacing them with three, larger regional prisons, as well as replacing Julia Tutwiler Prison for Women.

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, the sponsor of the bill, said Tuesday that the plan might include a continuation of recent renovations to Tutwiler, rather than replacing Tutwiler.

The Senate Judiciary Committee is scheduled to discuss the bill at 9:15 Thursday morning.

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Prison Construction Bill Sponsor Considering Smaller Version

By Chip Brownlee
Alabama Political Reporter

MONTGOMERY — Gov. Robert Bentley’s $800 million prison construction initiative has raised some eyebrows among lawmakers at the Alabama State House, prompting the proponent of the Governor’s plan to consider a smaller alternative.

Sen. Cam Ward, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and sponsor of the bill authorizing the Alabama Prison Transformation Initiative in the Senate, said Thursday that he would consider an alternative: perhaps a $500 million plan instead of the original $800 million plan.

“It’s possible,” Ward told APR. “We’re negotiating that now.”

The Judiciary Committee will meet next week, Ward said, at which time a substitute bill will be voted on. The bill would be a compromise “almost everyone can agree on,” Ward said.

“We’re going to meet with all of the parties, those who are for it and those who are against it, and let them have their say,” Ward said. “That’s why we took another week on it.”

The Committee addressed the current version of the bill Wednesday during a public hearing but there was no vote. The hearing saw presentations from Jeff Dunn, Alabama Department of Corrections commissioner, and several others including many who were against the plan.

Detractors, which included Committee members and representatives from various legal organizations, questioned the plan’s bidding process and whether it would actually solve the problems — overcrowding, understaffing, violence and mental health care — facing the State’s prisons.

Ward said they made some good points, which is why he is considering a compromise plan.

Where are the prisons going?

Bullock County Commissioner Ron Smith raised a concern common among many legislators whose districts include State facilities: Where will the new prisons go and what prisons will be closed? The plan calls for 14 of Alabama’s 17 prisons to be closed and consolidated into three new men’s prisons. One prison would be for women.

“Bullock County Correctional is our Hyundai,” Smith said. “Keep our Hyundai in Bullock County. Please put us at the top of the list. If not, leave us how we are.”

Another local official, Clio, Alabama, Mayor Jack Pelfrey, told those at the committee meeting Wednesday that his town had large debts from financing water and sewer projects to a State prison there.

“We are in debt until 2043,” Pelfrey said. “The prison is by far our largest customer.”

Ward said he was sympathetic to those concerns.

ADOC will fulfill contracts like infrastructure agreements with the counties that currently have prisons and there are plans to work with existing correctional officers to relocate them to the new prisons in their region.

But prisons shouldn’t be used as economic development projects, he said.

“The criminal justice system needs to work based upon what works for corrections, rehabilitation and public safety,” Ward said. “George Wallace used prisons as a tool to get votes and spur economic development. But I understand those communities’ concerns, and I’m with them.”

Overcrowding, understaffing and possible savings

The plan would authorize the Department of Corrections to issue an $800 million bond to construct three new 4,000-bed men’s prisons and a new women’s prison. It’s the brainchild of ADOC Commissioner Jeff Dunn and is Bentley’s top priority during this legislative session.

The Governor’s plan is an attempt to address overcrowding and systemic understaffing problems, but it doesn’t completely alleviate them. The plan would only reduce overcrowding from about 200 percent capacity to about 125 percent capacity over the next five years.

Alabama’s prisons currently house about 23,000 inmates in a system built mostly in the 1970s for a max of 13,000 inmates, according to the most recent ADOC statistical reports. Bentley’s plan would only increase capacity to 16,000 inmates if the planned number of existing prisons are closed.

The population has decreased from about 27,000 after the Legislature passed sentencing reform measures in 2013. Ward has said he favors an “all of the above” approach, which could include more sentencing reform.

The federal judiciary has shown increasing impatience with Alabama’s prison system. In 2014, conditions at Alabama’s Julia Tutwiler Prison were so bad that a Federal court ruled them unconstitutional and ordered improvements.

And another class-action lawsuit filed by the Southern Poverty Law Center over mental health conditions at Alabama’s prisons went to trial in December.

The SPLC, a Montgomery-based civil rights legal organization, doesn’t believe Bentley’s plan solves the State’s underlying problems of understaffing and inadequate health care. The SPLC is currently litigating the lawsuit alleging that the State is deliberately indifferent to prisoners’ mental health needs.

“There is no question that Alabama needs to improve its prison facilities,” said Ebony Howard, SPLC associate legal director. “But spending $800 million on four new prisons will not fix the grossly inadequate medical and mental health care, the ongoing staff shortage or the unspeakable levels of violence.”

The bond would end up costing the State about $1.5 billion over the 30-year repayment period. The Department of Corrections says operational savings from the new prisons would save the State about $50 million a year — enough to finance the bond’s annual payment, according to independent reports ADOC commissioned.

Consolidation using the four “mega prisons” would reduce staffing costs by about $17 million a year, overtime payments by $21 million a year and healthcare delivery by $10 million, according to the two independent studies.

The plan calls for no reduction in health care staff but consolidates the healthcare administration from 14 different facilities to only three regional men’s facilities, which should increase access to healthcare while reducing costs, proponents say.

The consolidation would also allow for a 6 percent reduction in security staff and a 19 percent reduction in support staff, ADOC said.

Savings from the new prisons’ overall lower operating costs will allow ADOC to support the billion-dollar bond issue through its current annual appropriation. They say no changes to their General Fund appropriation will be needed.

Savings total $50 million a year, which, if accurate, would match nicely with estimated annual bond payments of about $50 million.

Ward told APR that he has asked the Legislative Fiscal Office for an additional report on estimated savings. He said he would have the full report by next week’s committee hearing and the findings will be presented.

To bid or not to bid?

The plan calls for the use of a design-build construction method. With this plan, one entity would be chosen to both design the facilities and construct them.

In the normal bidding process, the design-bid-build method, one entity bids for the design contract, another bid for the construction contract and the contractors then subcontract to smaller components of the construction.

Several legislators and many in the media were concerned that the plan would be less transparent and perhaps even be a no-bid process. But the design-build plan would save the State money and yield better results all while maintaining an open bid process, Ward said.

“The reason we want to do it this — and why most states other than us do it this way — is because you have one bid, as opposed to two people running down different tracks who sometimes don’t communicate, which causes cost overruns,” Ward said. “You’re still bidding it, but you’re just not bidding every single piece of it. It saves money this way.”

The nontraditional bidding process has thrown some people off, but 49 other states and the District of Columbia have used it before, Ward said, and have had successful results.

It’s been used successfully in Alabama, as well, just not by the State government. A federal women’s prison near Aliceville, Alabama, in south Pickens County, was built in 2009 using a design-build method. 

The federal correctional facility was built by Montgomery-based contractor Caddell Construction for a cost of $192 million, according to Caddell. It houses more than 1,600 inmates, an eighth of all women in federal prisons.

Is there a watchdog?

Under existing State statutes, the votings members of the State authority responsible for overseeing the issuance of the bond and construction of the prisons consists of the Governor, the Commissioner of the Department of Corrections and the Director of Finance — all within the Governor’s cabinet.

The prison construction bill in the Senate would add a House and a Senate member to the board. But that may not be enough to stop the executive branch from jostling a plan through authority, which has a quorum of three members.

“The Legislature cannot have a majority on the authority because that gets into the separation of powers. They can’t approve the money and then spend the money,” Ward said. “We can add other members to the authority, though. We can the Treasurer and maybe some other executive branch members, but we can’t have a majority of the Legislature on there.”

The three members of the authority, under current statutes, have the power to acquire land, construct and lease the facilities and issue bonds up to $60 million. The bill would give the new five-member authority the ability to issue up to $800 million in bonds for new prisons.

No construction budgets have been submitted to the Legislature yet. They are simply voting on a broad outline of the plan. ADOC and the Alabama Corrections Institution Finance Authority will have the final say on the plan, under current statute and the proposed plan.

Several legislators have been concerned about the oversight of the authority and what power would be given to the Legislature to halt any plans it does not approve of if the bill authorizing the basics of the plan passes.

The bill expands the size of the permanent legislative committee that provides oversight to the Department of Corrections from eight members to 12 members. 

The Senate bill would require a report from ADOC on the status of the plans every legislative session, and the Legislature would retain the power to shut down the process if they passed new legislation, Ward said.

“The key is if you have the transparency and oversight that means the public is going to know how it’s being spent,” Ward said. “If it’s reported that this money is being misspent we can actually roll it all back with legislation.”

The future of the prison construction plan

Even with the high-ranking support from Ward, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, the Governor and ADOC Commissioner Dunn, the bill has not had an easy path this legislative session.

“Let’s look at alternatives,” Rep. Johhny Mack Morrow, D-Redbay, said earlier this month. “Let’s don’t sink into $50 million a year debt. We’re going to put our grandchildren $50 million a year.”

Several legislators have proposed alternatives to the plan. The alternative proposed by Morrow and Rep. Ed Henry, R-Hartselle, would call for the State to contract with county and municipal jails to house State inmates. They say that option would be cheaper than housing inmates in State prisons and wouldn’t require a large bond issue.

In January 2015, the Alabama Department of Corrections had contracts with nine county jails to house 330 inmates at $15 per day. In total, the contracts cost $1.8 million in the 2015 fiscal year. ADOC also contracted with the Alabama Therapeutic Education Facility in Columbiana to house 700 inmates at $32 per day.

After budget reductions last year, ADOC canceled the contracts with the county jails, pulling the inmates in the county jails back into the State prison system. A spokesperson for the Department of Corrections said the pullbacks were to mitigate the budget reductions.

No single alternative has seemed to stick out, though. Disagreements over the prison construction plan are broad. Some are concerned about the location of the new prisons, others the consolidation and others, still, the design-build construction and bidding method.

Ward said he wanted to give those opposed to the bill the opportunity to present their alternatives next week before the bill is considered in the committee, and he won’t rush debate on the bill if it makes it to the floor of the Senate.

“The problem last year was people rushed out and basically ran over people,” Ward said. “I am going to make sure that everyone gets an opportunity to voice their opinion.”

A compromise plan proposed last year reduced the bond issue to about $550 million and cut the number of prisons from three regional men’s prisons to only two. Even with the changes, the compromise bill failed in the House because there weren’t enough votes to break filibuster and close debate.

The prison bill was debated Wednesday and will be readdressed next Tuesday during a Judiciary Committee meeting. It would require approval from the committee and then passage from the full Senate and then the House.

 

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Ward Receives Business Champion Award

Shelby County Reporter- FROM STAFF REPORTS

MONTGOMERY – Alabama Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) received the Business Champion Award on Feb. 21 for sponsorship of legislation to regulate lawsuit lenders and bring stability and fairness to the tort process.

The award was presented by the Business Council of Alabama president and CEO William J. Canary, Chamber of Commerce Association of Alabama president and CEO Jeremy Arthur and Greater Shelby County Chamber of Commerce president and CEO Kirk Mancer.

“Senator Ward in sponsoring the Alabama Lawsuit Lending Act is to be recognized and commended for his steadfast commitment to legal fairness and for his opposition to lawsuit interference by third parties with a financial interest in them,” Canary said.

“Aggressive lawsuit lending poses challenges to Alabama’s legal system by charging exhorbitant interest rates on loans that can affect how plaintiffs negotiate the process,” Mancer said. “Suppose the loan is so great that plaintiffs refuse a reasonable offer from the defendant in hopes of a bigger jackpot that may or may not occur?”

“Lawsuit loans are not within our state regulations but should be just as any other lender,” Arthur said.

Lawsuit lending reform is on the BCA’s 2017 legislative agenda. Bipartisan majorities have passed a form of this legislation in the last two years, but a few senators have used procedural rules to stop reform efforts.

A former House member, Ward is chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

The Business Champion Award recognizes legislators for sponsorship of and support of policies that better Alabama’s business climate and lives of employees, families and citizens

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Committee Fields Prison Construction Concerns

Montgomery Advertiser

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, knows the problems that beleaguer the Alabama prison system and the concerns facing the prison construction bill, and he’s not shy about admitting that building four new prisons to the tune of $800 million — or $1.5 billion after 30 years — will not solve most of those problems.

The current prison system is plagued by overcrowding, dwindling corrections officer ranks, increasing levels of violence and a notable lack of mental health and substance abuse treatment. At a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing Wednesday afternoon, those opposed to the prison construction bill voiced their concerns about the bill: What will happen to local economies that depend on their prisons for revenue? Will the new facilities will be adequately staffed? Will mental health programs be implemented and what if, after all of this, the new prisons are still overcrowded?

Taking the podium to defend the bill, Ward acknowledged the plan’s singular focus of attempting to alleviate the load on an overcrowded prison system that ended 2016 at 175 percent capacity and admitted that not all problems would be addressed by the bill.

“I would love to come in here today to tell you we have a bill that solves all our problems. It does not. It took us decades to get into the hole we’re in, and we’re in a hole. That’s proven by the budget issues we have, by the violence inside the system, by the lawsuits we face. No one bill will solve all that and I won’t pretend to tell you that it will,” Ward said. “Looking at the facilities we have and talking to the experts we have, there’s one thing for certain: You’re going to build at some point. The question is do you build on your terms or do you build when someone has a gun to your head telling you how to build?”

During the public hearing portion, Southern Poverty Law Center Associate Legal Director Ebony Howard raised questions about why the plan has no guidelines for doctor/nurse ratios or medical staff competence, but Sen. Phil Williams, R-Rainbow City, said the bill "isn't about mental health and the bill isn't about sentencing reform."

"This idea does not solve all of our issues, but it does solve one of our issues," Williams said referring to overcrowding.

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Bill to Remove Judicial Override Clears Senate

MONTGOMERY — A bill that would end Alabama’s judicial override sentencing system, which allows judges to override juries and impose the death penalty, passed the State Senate Thursday with a near-unanimous vote.

Sen. Dick Brewbaker (R-Montgomery), sponsored the bill, which would prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s sentence. Under the bill, at least 10 of 12 jurors must vote for death for a defendant to receive the sentence.

 

“It wasn’t an anti-death-penalty vote,” Brewbaker said Wednesday. “It was cleaning up a procedure that is detrimental to the jury system and calls into question jurisprudence in Alabama.”

Brewbaker, and Sen. Cam Ward (R-Alabaster), who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, referred to ending judicial override as a “moral” issue.

“This is not an indictment or somehow anything against our judges,” Ward said. “At the end of the day, it is morally wrong for us to allow this to continue in our State. We have a jury system and a jury process for a reason.”

Only one senator, Sen. Tripp Pittman, R-Daphne, voted against the measure.

“I have confidence in judges sitting through trials that are very complicated,” Pittman told APR. “Judges have my confidence to have that discretion. I think it’s important. … I do support the death penalty. I do think that the judges need that prerogative. Sometimes crimes are just so heinous that they rise to that level.”

Last year, the Alabama became the last state in the US with judicial override after the US Supreme Court ruled against Florida’s judicial override sentencing scheme. Over the next several months, the Florida Supreme Court and the Delaware Supreme Court killed judicial override in those states.

But in January, The US Supreme Court refused to hear a challenge to Alabama’s system of judicial override from several death row inmates, including Thomas Arthur, who — after another Supreme Court decision Monday — will be scheduled for his eight execution.

Arthur escaped seven previous execution dates unscathed because of several appeals. Though Arthur’s case, in particular, didn’t affect Pittman’s decision today, he said, it is an example of an appeals process that needs to be reviewed.

“I think you do need to look at how to run those appeals concurrently,” Pittman said. “I do think the Tommy Arthur case is an example of how someone can have seven different executions scheduled and are able to abuse the system in a case where a man was paid to execute a woman’s husband.”

Even with Alabama’s legal victories, the State’s system remains the only “hybrid sentencing system” in the country. Juries give a nonbinding advisory sentence — either for death or for life — and the judge then makes the final determination.

In Arthur’s case, his trial jury voted 11-1 for an advisory verdict of death, but the vote wasn’t unanimous, as most other states’ death-penalty sentences require. Under Brewbaker’s bill, Arthur still would have gotten the death penalty.

Brewbaker said his bill as written was not retroactive, but the Senate passed an amendment to the bill that would more clearly define that anyone who received the death penalty from a judge before its passage will not be able to have it reversed under this law.

Since 1976, more than 92 percent of 107 overrides have resulted in a judge imposing the death penalty when a trial jury voted to recommend life in prison, unlike Arthur’s case, according to Montgomery’s Equal Justice Initiative.

The Supreme Court decisions this year effectively ruled Alabama’s system constitutional, but that didn’t stop 30 senators from passing Brewbaker’s bill Thursday.

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, has similar legislation in the House, which would also end judicial override but would require a unanimous jury vote for death. England’s version would put Alabama in line with all other states, which require a unanimous jury vote.

“I think it’s clear that the will of the body is there to do something about judicial override overall,” England said. “I think there may be a couple of differences of opinion about the specifics like unanimity of the jury. I think it will work itself through the process.”

England said he supports both bills.

“My opinion is that it restores faith in the outcome of the cases,” England said. “There’s some belief there that some judges who are politically motivated and want to give the appearance that they’re tough on crime to help their chances at re-election. I think that this will restore public confidence in the process going forward.”

The House Judiciary Committee gave England’s bill a favorable report and it should be brought before the full House as soon as Tuesday.

“We obviously all have differences of opinion about how bills should be done, but at the end of the day I think the overriding concept in judicial override is that passing the bill ending that practice will be a good step forward.”

Brewbaker’s legislation now heads to the House. If it is passed, it would be sent to the Governor for his signature before becoming law.

 

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