Alabama’s regular legislative session is well underway, and lawmakers are considering several bills that — if passed — would work toward achieving something the State House rarely considers: justice.
The first bill, SB211, sponsored by Sen. Paul Bussman, would right a wrong Alabama committed for years.
Until 2015, for nearly three decades, Anthony Ray Hinton sat on death row for a crime he didn’t commit. Hinton had been convicted of the murder of two Birmingham restaurant managers despite eyewitness testimony placing him miles away at a church-run barbecue fundraiser. The only physical evidence linking Hinton to the murders — bullets found at the crime scene that the state claimed matched his mother’s gun — went missing for years. Once they resurfaced, the bullets were retested and found not to be a match. With that revelation, the only real evidence against a man incarcerated for 30 years had fallen through.
Equal Justice Initiative, a Montgomery-based nonprofit that focuses on death penalty cases, represented Hinton on appeal, and the case eventually snaked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that Hinton’s defense had been “constitutionally deficient” and ordered a new trial. With all evidence pointing to Hinton’s innocence, the state of Alabama refused to try him again, and in April 2015 Jefferson County Judge Laura Petro overturned Hinton’s original conviction.
Now, nearly two years later, Hinton hasn’t seen a penny of compensation for the nearly 30 years of his life he spent behind bars, despite an Alabama law that provides for no less than $50,000 per year of wrongful incarceration. One state senator is aiming to change that, though.
Senate Bill 211 would allocate $500,000 from the general fund to Hinton. While that’s not the nearly the $1.5 million he’s due, it’s better than what’s been done for Hinton thus far. Last year, a nonbinding resolution simply apologizing for Hinton’s imprisonment failed to pass even one chamber of the Legislature. Here’s hoping Senate Bill 211 has a much brighter legislative future.
Conviction for construction
The second justice-related issue before the Legislature this year is the prison overcrowding problem. Gov. Robert Bentley seeks to solve overcrowding by borrowing $800 million on a bond issue to build four new prisons across the state. State prisons are currently well over double capacity, housing more than twice the number of inmates they were built to hold and running on skeleton staffs.
“Alabama has some of the oldest facilities; Draper [Correctional Facility] was built in 1939, followed by Tutwiler in 1942, and what you had for decades is prisons that have been double occupied, so their life span has been diminished considerably,” Alabama Department of Corrections Associate Commissioner Jeffery Williams said.
For years, Alabama’s prison system has been seen as ripe for a federal takeover because of its inability to provide even basic necessities to inmates and the risk overcrowding poses to corrections officers and the general public. Now these dire circumstances have forced politicians to the table and some type of legislation seems inevitable.
Gov. Bentley has said that while the $800 million bond issue will cost the state $50 million each year until it is repaid, the state would have to spend a similar amount, if not more, repairing the old facilities.
So whether they build new prisons, revamp the old ones, or even just reduce the prison population itself, the Alabama Legislature has a prison problem, and it’s time they solve it.
Jury knows best
The third justice issue up for debate this legislative session is ending the practice of judicial override. Legislation filed by Dick Brewbaker in the Senate and Chris England in the House would prevent judges from overturning the sentence of a jury in death penalty cases. After a U.S. Supreme Court decision that ruled Florida’s similar scheme unconstitutional, Alabama is the only state where judges still have the ability to ignore the vote of a jury in choosing a sentence in a capital case. Both the Senate and House bills ending the practice have passed out of committee and will soon be up for a vote by the full Legislature.
Locked up then left behind
Also up for debate this session is providing identification to those leaving prison or jail. When a person who has served their time in jail or prison is released, they are given few, if any, resources with which to move forward in finding a job and becoming a productive member of society. The most basic of these necessities is identification, and in Alabama, if you’re unfortunate enough to be sentenced to prison, when you are released you’re on your own, and that includes with proving who you are — even to a prospective employer.
Lagniappe recently spoke to a local pastor and social justice advocate, Micah Weech, who emphasized the need to fix this problem. Weech said that too often those released from jail or prison have difficulty doing the very things society encourages — getting a job, opening a bank account, paying taxes — because they don’t have something as simple as identification.
“What politicians do I need to talk to to solve this? It’s a problem nobody seems to want to solve,” Weech said. A solution may be on the way.
Quinton Ross, the Senate Minority Leader, has filed legislation that would solve this issue by authorizing the Department of Corrections to create a program to provide non-driver IDs to those released from incarceration, giving those who have served their time the ability not just to re-enter society but to integrate into it. The legislation has passed the full Senate and now moves to the House for consideration.