State Government

2014 legislative update: Plan to shorten appeals process in Alabama death penalty cases clears House, Senate committees

The Alabama House and Senate soon could vote on a plan to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in the state. Judiciary Committee members in both the House and Senate approved the legislation Wednesday.

The House panel voted 9-6 for HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville. Earlier, the Senate committee voted 7-1 for SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison. The bills are identical.

Direct and collateral appeals would run concurrently in death penalty cases in Alabama under HB 216 and SB 194, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if defendants are too poor to pay for their own representation.

The plan would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those collateral appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after the completion of direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. Under the plan, defendants would have to file Rule 32 petitions within 180 days of filing their first direct appeal.

‘We ought to be able to do better’

HB 216 and SB 194 prompted intense debate among lawmakers Wednesday over whether a faster appeals timetable could increase the chances that an innocent person might be put to death. Supporters of the bills said they would protect defendants’ rights while reducing long delays in carrying out executions.

“We’re looking at the average appeal process is 16 years and climbing,” Holtzclaw said. “We can’t lose sight of the fact that these people were convicted by a jury of their peers.”

Recent advances in DNA testing and other technology have reduced the likelihood that a person will wrongly end up on death row, Madison County District Attorney Rob Broussard told House committee members. Of the roughly 1,500 people sentenced to death nationwide since 2000, Broussard said, only four have been exonerated. “The notion that there are a lot of innocent people on death row, I take exception to that,” he said.

Broussard said appeals are still being heard in some Alabama capital cases that were prosecuted more than 15 years ago. He said that lengthy process is unfair to victims’ families, who sometimes have to wait decades before the person convicted of murdering their loved one is executed. “The system we have in place is being abused,” Broussard said. “We ought to be able to do better.”

‘Sometimes we do get it wrong’

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, was highly critical of the proposal, saying it would reduce the amount of time that a defendant’s lawyers have to unearth potential errors. “Sometimes we do get it wrong,” England said. “And sometimes this time has saved people.”

Rep. Mike Jones, R-Andalusia, was among several lawmakers who urged members to take more time to study HB 216. Jones said he supports the death penalty but would like to know more about how average appeal times now would compare to those under the proposed system. “My concern is whether we’re moving too fast,” Jones said. “This is not a simple thing to read through and piece together.”

Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, said the issue was simple for her, because she opposes the death penalty entirely. “Thou shalt not kill, and two wrongs don’t make a right,” Figures said. Figures was the only Senate committee member to vote against SB 194 on Wednesday.

Alabama lawmakers should be careful to ensure fairness for low-income and marginalized people as they consider reforms of the death penalty system, Bishop David Foley told House committee members. Foley, bishop emeritus of the Birmingham Diocese of the Roman Catholic Church, said innocent people are not the only ones who need extra time. People who are guilty of murder also need time to seek forgiveness and reconciliation, he said.

“In God’s eyes, life is sacred, not just for the innocent but for the guilty,” Foley said. “Only the cross of forgiveness and the final justice of God will truly bring the scales into balance.”

Two other death penalty bills approved; one delayed

Lawmakers signed off Wednesday on two other proposals related to the death penalty. Both House and Senate committees backed bills – HB 218, sponsored by Greer, and SB 193, sponsored by Holtzclaw – to add to the list of offenses defined as capital crimes. For example, the legislation would allow the state to seek the death penalty for any murder committed in a day care or on a school campus.

The House panel also voted 10-5 to approve a bill – HB 219, sponsored by Greer – that would require an attorney or a party in a death penalty case, or anyone acting on their behalf, to obtain a judge’s permission before contacting jurors after the case. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any improper behavior during trials.

Jones said judges already instruct jurors that they are not required to talk to attorneys after the case. Jones acknowledged concerns that some people might harass jurors or misrepresent themselves, but he suggested an amendment to the state’s jury tampering law would be a better way to address the matter.

The House committee delayed a vote on a bill that would prohibit capital defense attorneys from contacting a victim’s immediate family members before notifying the prosecutor. HB 217, sponsored by Greer, would allow the prosecutor either to agree to the request or ask the court to forbid the contact.

Committee members raised several concerns about the proposal. England said the bill could create appellate issues by limiting access to material witnesses and giving the prosecutor “an inherent advantage over the defense.” Rep. David Standridge, R-Hayden, said the measure needs a clearer definition of “immediate family member.” The committee postponed a vote on the bill but could reconsider it in coming weeks.

Lawmakers will return Thursday for the sixth day of the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Chris Sanders, communications director. Policy analyst Stephen Stetson contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 22, 2014.

2014 legislative update: Bills to shorten Alabama's death penalty appeals process speeding toward committee votes

House and Senate committees are set to vote Wednesday afternoon on proposals to shorten the appeals process for people convicted of capital murder in Alabama. Members of both chambers’ Judiciary Committees gathered Tuesday to hear public testimony on the legislation – HB 216, sponsored by Rep. Lynn Greer, R-Rogersville, and SB 194, sponsored by Sen. Bill Holtzclaw, R-Madison – as well as other bills related to the criminal justice system.

Legislators heard from five speakers at the public hearing, which took place before a standing-room-only crowd. Many other speakers were hoping to be heard, but the committee adjourned after an hour because the House was going into session. Two speakers opposed HB 216 and SB 194, while three spoke in support. Two of the bills’ three proponents were family members of murder victims.

Before the public hearing began, the committees heard from Beau Brown, an attorney with the Alabama Office of Prosecution Services, which helped to draft the bills. Brown briefly explained each of the bills:

  • HB 216 and SB 194 would cause direct and collateral death penalty appeals to run concurrently, thus shortening the appeals process in capital cases. The legislation, labeled the “Fair Justice Act,” would accelerate the pace of post-conviction appeals known as Rule 32 appeals. Those appeals, which examine claims such as ineffective assistance of counsel, now occur after direct appeals that consider issues such as sufficiency of evidence. The bills also would require the state to provide lawyers for both sets of appeals if a defendant is too poor to afford a lawyer.
  • HB 217 would forbid a defendant’s attorney from contacting victims or their families without first giving the prosecutor a chance to ask the judge to forbid that contact. The bill would apply to all criminal cases, though Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting the provisions to capital cases.
  • HB 218 and SB 193 would add additional types of murders to the list of those defined as capital offenses.
  • HB 219 would forbid contacting jurors in criminal cases without permission from the court. Gathering information from jurors is a technique that many defense attorneys use in determining whether there was any sort of improper behavior during trials. As with HB 217, Brown indicated he would be open to an amendment limiting those provisions to capital cases.

Greer sponsors the House bills, while Holtzclaw sponsors the Senate ones. Holtzclaw said he plans to introduce Senate bills that mirror the provisions of HB 217 and HB 219. The package of bills has the support of the Alabama District Attorneys Association.

‘You can’t imagine what you go through’

Walker County District Attorney Bill Adair was dismissive of the idea that the proposals could lead to additional costs for the state. “Those costs all exist now,” he said. Adair told a lengthy and graphic story about a 1988 murder in Cordova. Greg Hunt, convicted of the crime, has been on death row since 1990. Adair described that situation as an unconscionable delay in justice.

Denise Gurganus, the sister of the victim in Hunt’s case, said she had insight on criminal justice policy that most people cannot share. “Until you have lost a loved one to a murder, you can’t imagine what you go through on a daily basis, and it does not stop,” she said.

Sherrie Carter, whose brother-in-law was killed in 1996, was emotional in comparing the amount of time it took to commit the crime to the amount of time the person convicted of killing him has spent on death row. Carter described the state’s lengthy capital appeals process as “just so the defendant can grasp at a thread to get out of what he did.”

‘The cost of this bill will be huge’

Birmingham criminal defense attorney Richard Jaffe said HB 216 and SB 194 could place a tremendous strain on Alabama’s budget and could carry severe unintended consequences.

“You know, 45 percent of our reversals in death cases come because of inadequate assistance of counsel at the trial level, and that’s because of inadequate funding,” Jaffe said. “You get a few thousand dollars to do something that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars, and we’ve already got a shortage of trained attorneys. The cost of this bill will be huge and end up hurting crime victims in the long run because of the reversals of all of these cases.”

Criminal defense attorney Bill Clark, a former president of the Alabama State Bar, focused on the lack of research that had gone into the bills’ potential effects. Clark asked why the bills have not been evaluated by the Alabama Law Institute or the State Bar.

“We have criminal procedure committees that are designed to examine just this sort of thing,” Clark said. “I don’t understand the rush to pass a bill that is difficult to understand. The Bill of Rights was passed to protect citizens from the power of government, and these bills don’t do that.”

Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the fifth meeting day of the 2014 regular session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Stephen Stetson, policy analyst. Posted Jan. 21, 2014.

2014 legislative update: ETF increase not enough to restore Alabama schools to pre-recession funding

Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but K-12 and higher education need a far larger increase to meet students’ needs adequately, lawmakers heard Tuesday during the second day of state budget hearings in Montgomery.

Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be $134 million, or 2.3 percent, higher next year, according to the Legislative Fiscal Office. But that amount is far less than the total $474 million in increases that K-12 and higher education officials have requested. It is also 18.7 percent less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation. Next year’s projected gains will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines.

Poverty, hunger remain challenges for K-12 schools, superintendent says

K-12 schools need $245 million, or 6 percent, more money next year, state school Superintendent Tommy Bice said. That increase would allow the state to hire an additional 450 middle school teachers to help reduce the dropout rate by keeping students engaged in school at a critical age, Bice said. The money also would help the state address other education needs, Bice said, by boosting support for:

  • School bus services, allowing systems to replace older buses and shorten routes that have some children getting on a bus before 6 a.m.;
  • A competitive grant program to allow schools in lower-income areas to offer music and other arts programs;
  • More teachers in expanding career and technical programs;
  • Family Resource Centers that serve the families of public schoolchildren;
  • Distance learning and the Alabama Math, Science and Technology Initiative;
  • An expansion of the successful Alabama Reading Initiative beyond the third grade; and
  • Libraries, technology, counselors, school nurses and continuing education for teachers.

Poverty remains the greatest barrier to education in Alabama, Bice said. “Education is the only way to end intergenerational poverty,” he said. Nearly every local school superintendent in the state attended in support of Bice’s presentation.

Child hunger is a major problem for Alabama’s schools, Bice said, and recent reductions in federal food assistance through the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as food stamps) have made the problem even more serious. Nearly two-thirds of Alabama schoolchildren now qualify for free lunches, Bice said, a 4 percent increase in only one year. All but two school systems in the state provide breakfast, and more than four out of five children who eat breakfast at school qualify for free breakfasts, Bice said. The prevalence of hunger increasingly is leading schools to provide meals for children in the summer, as well as during the school year.

Alabama’s K-12 schools still are finding success despite chronic underfunding, Bice said. The state’s graduation rate has climbed to 80 percent for the first time ever, he said, an increase of 5 percentage points in one year. High schools also are expanding their collaborations with nearby community colleges, Bice said.

Pre-K, 2-year colleges, universities also request funding increases

Other presenters made the case Tuesday for more money for early childhood education and higher education in Alabama next year. Jenna Ross, director of the Office of School Readiness, asked for more support for the state’s highly touted pre-K programs. High-quality pre-K education closes the achievement gap for low-income students, Ross said. It also increases reading and math scores, decreases school absences, and reduces referrals to special education services, she said.

Mark Heinrich, chancellor of the state’s two-year college system, requested legislative support to expand a GED preparation program to help educate the 479,000 Alabama workers who do not have a high school degree or GED. Another priority for the system is to expand dual enrollment programs between high schools and community colleges, Heinrich said. He also urged an expansion of prison education programs, which he said have been shown to reduce recidivism rates significantly.

Lawmakers should try to restore universities to their 2008 state funding levels next year, said Robert Witt, chancellor of the University of Alabama System. Median tuition at the state’s public universities has increased sharply in recent years amid declining state funding.

The Legislature began the 2014 regular session Tuesday. Lawmakers will return Wednesday for the second meeting day of the session, which is expected to last until early April.

By Carol Gundlach, policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 14, 2014.

2014 legislative update: More money available for education, less for General Fund services next year

Alabama will have more money available for education next year, but funding is expected to drop for the perennially cash-strapped General Fund (GF), the director of the Legislative Fiscal Office (LFO) said Monday during the first day of state budget hearings in Montgomery. The GF provides a sizable amount of state funding for Medicaid, mental health care, public safety and other non-education services.

It will not be possible for the Legislature to design budgets that make up the ground lost since 2008, the year before the Great Recession hammered state finances, LFO director Norris Green said. “We are out of the negative numbers but are in the low positives,” Green told lawmakers.

Costs go up, revenue stays flat: The General Fund story

Another new legislative session will bring another round of struggles for the GF budget, which helps fund Medicaid, courts, prisons and other public services. The GF will have $1.7 billion available for 2015, Green said. That amount is $83.3 million, or 4.7 percent, less than this year’s allocations. It also is nearly $287 million, or 14.4 percent, below pre-recession GF spending in 2008, adjusted for inflation.

Without significant new revenues, many services could face deep funding cuts. One-time money from a tobacco lawsuit settlement helped the GF stay afloat this year, but that money will not be available in 2015. A $145.8 million infusion from the Alabama Trust Fund (ATF) will help prevent further erosion of support for services funded under the GF next year. But additional borrowing from the ATF, which receives royalties from offshore oil and gas drilling in Alabama’s coastal waters, would require a constitutional amendment.

Green said he sees little hope for state employee raises next year, and Gov. Robert Bentley has said they are unlikely. Each 1 percent of salary increase for state employees would cost $17.5 million, the LFO estimates, with only $4.5 million of that amount coming from the GF. Almost all GF agencies get money from other sources, including the federal government, Green said.

Medicaid, other agencies: We need more money to meet current needs

Big questions once again concern how the state will address growing Medicaid costs. State Health Officer Don Williamson said Medicaid will end the current budget year on Sept. 30 without a deficit. “But we will end it flat broke,” Williamson said. Medicaid provides health coverage for about one in five Alabamians, many of them low-income children and seniors.

Medicaid needs $85 million, or 13.8 percent, more GF money next year to meet its expected needs, Williamson said. The agency already has cut reimbursements for dental services, dialysis and services from non-primary care doctors. Williamson said those cuts have raised real concerns about patients’ access to care.

Other services also need more GF money to fulfill their missions next year, agency directors told lawmakers Monday. Williamson requested an extra $10.5 million to help cover higher enrollment in ALL Kids, which insures children whose low- and middle-income families do not qualify for Medicaid. The Department of Mental Health has requested an additional $20 million – three-fourths of it from the GF – to make needed investments in community-based care.

Alabama’s overcrowded prison system asked for another $42 million next year to help fund a pay increase for corrections officers, Corrections Commissioner Kim Thomas said. State courts need an additional $26.5 million next year to help avoid dozens of layoffs and hire more juvenile probation officers, Alabama Chief Justice Roy Moore said. Nancy Buckner, commissioner of the Department of Human Resources, asked for more money to help expand adult day care and increase foster care payments.

Williamson noted that Medicaid enrollment has continued to increase despite the recent drop in Alabama’s unemployment rate. Buckner made a similar observation about enrollment for food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. Both speculated that the creation of low-wage jobs may be a factor in those trends.

ETF spending still down nearly a fifth since 2008

Alabama’s education funding is expected to increase next year, but the growth will not come close to offsetting recession-era declines. Spending in the Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget will be capped at $5.9 billion next year under the Rolling Reserve Act. That amount is $134 million, or 2.3 percent, more than this year’s appropriations. It is less than the amount that K-12 and higher education officials requested, however. It is also $1.36 billion, or 18.7 percent, less than Alabama spent through the ETF in 2008, adjusted for inflation.

The state is projected to bring in more than $6 billion in ETF revenues next year, Green said, with much of the money that exceeds the spending cap going to repay the ETF’s rainy day fund. Bentley has said he hopes to see teacher raises next year. The LFO estimates the cost of each 1 percent of salary increase for educators is between $34 million and $38 million, but debt repayment obligations may cut into the money available for raises, Green said.

K-12 and higher education leaders will elaborate on their funding needs Tuesday morning during the second day of state budget hearings. The Legislature officially will begin its 2014 regular session Tuesday at noon. State budgets will be a key issue during the session, which is expected to last until early April.

By M.J. Ellington, health policy analyst. Communications director Chris Sanders and policy analyst Carol Gundlach contributed to this report. Posted Jan. 13, 2014.

Commission to send watered-down constitutional revisions to Alabama Legislature

Due process rights and a judicially enforceable right to public education would not be included in the Alabama Constitution under the proposed new articles approved Thursday by the Alabama Constitutional Revision Commission. The commission did endorse adding equal protection language to the constitution, but explicitly declined to extend those safeguards to gay Alabamians. The state would have to maintain public schools, but lawsuits over that language would be forbidden.

The proposals would have to win lawmakers' approval and pass in a statewide vote next year before officially becoming part of the constitution. This legislative update recaps the commission's debate and decisions on these weighty issues.

Read ACPP policy analyst Stephen Stetson's legislative update here.

Arise legislative update: Legislature OKs historic preservation credits; House approves bill to restore tax break for disabled Alabamians

A bill to create state income tax credits for preserving historic buildings in Alabama went to Gov. Robert Bentley after legislators passed it Thursday. The House also voted for a bill that would restore a full homestead exemption for all disabled Alabamians, regardless of their incomes. This legislative update highlights those issues and others that still remain as the Legislature approaches the final day of the 2013 regular session.

Read ACPP policy analyst Chris Sanders' legislative update here.

Arise legislative update: Courts warn of job cuts as Alabama Legislature approves tight General Fund budget propped up with one-time money

About 150 court employees could be laid off next year under a General Fund budget that sailed through the Alabama Legislature on Thursday. The $1.75 billion budget, which would provide flat funding for Medicaid and mental health services, would rely on nearly $200 million of one-time money. This legislative update highlights the budget's key provisions and implications.

Read ACPP policy analyst Chris Sanders' legislative update here.

Arise legislative update: Legislature passes Accountability Act changes to increase corporation donation value, revise 'failing school' definition

Alabama lawmakers gave swift approval Thursday to a bill that would redefine "failing schools" and boost the tax savings for corporations that donate to scholarship funds under the Alabama Accountability Act. The changes to the law, which will subsidize private school tuition for some K-12 students, cleared the House and Senate in hours after supporters quickly shut down debate. This legislative update highlights the bill's numerous provisions and the tenor of the brief debate over it.

Read ACPP policy analyst Chris Sanders' legislative update here.

Arise legislative update: Governor to decide on education budget with 2% teacher raise, money to help subsidize private school tuition

An Education Trust Fund (ETF) budget that would give K-12 teachers and support staff a 2 percent pay increase next year will go to Gov. Robert Bentley after the House approved it 70-26 Thursday. The budget would boost funding for pre-K and Advanced Placement courses but slash support for the Alabama Reading Initiative. It also would set aside $40 million for tax credits that could subsidize private school tuition for some K-12 students. This legislative update highlights the provisions of next year's ETF budget.

Read ACPP policy analyst Chris Sanders' legislative update here.

Arise legislative update: Alabama Senate OKs education budget with 2% teacher raise

K-12 teachers and support staff would receive a 2 percent pay raise next year under an Education Trust Fund budget that the Alabama Senate passed Tuesday night. The $5.77 billion budget would boost support for pre-K and Advanced Placement courses but cut funding for the Alabama Reading Initiative. It also would set aside up to $40 million for tax credits that could subsidize private school tuition for some students. This legislative update highlights the budget's provisions and recaps the Senate debate over it.

Read ACPP policy analyst Chris Sanders' legislative update here.

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