The Legislature convened last week for the first of what are expected to be two special sessions this fall. Gov. Ivey – who has authority under Alabama law to call the legislature into a “special and extraordinary session” – had asked Alabama legislators to begin work on Monday, Sept. 27 to take up corrections related issues including prison construction and sentencing reforms. The House and Senate concluded their work in record time on Friday, Oct. 1, using the minimum five legislative days required to pass a bill.
By Friday at the conclusion of the special session, four bills were sent to the governor for her signature, three dealing with new prison construction and existing facility infrastructure updates and renovations and one dealing with reforming a portion of the pardons and paroles process.
HB 2 by Rep. Jim Hill (R–Springville) — HB 2 was one of two sentencing reform proposals considered during the session. The measure facilitates the supervised release of certain inmates near the end of their sentences by use of electronic monitoring devices administered by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. A more controversial proposal would have made retroactive a 2013 law allowing nonviolent offenders to be resentenced based on the state’s presumptive sentencing guidelines.
HB 4 by Rep. Steve Clouse (R–Ozark) and Sen. Greg Albritton (R-Atmore), the Chairmen of the General Fund, sets forth a $1.3 billion construction plan to build new mega-prisons, and renovate and repurpose a slate of existing facilities. The plan calls for the closure of the Kilby, St. Clair, Staton and Elmore facilities. The House clotured debate on the measure on Wednesday, approving it by a vote of 74-27. On Friday, the Senate spent a little over two hours on the measure before passing by a vote of 27-2. The $1.3 billion needed to support the plan will be sourced from federal COVID relief funds ($400m), the General Fund ($135m) and a bond issue (up to $785m).
HB 5 by Rep. Clouse and Sen. Albritton is the appropriation measure authorizing the allocation of $400m in COVID-relief funds to support the plan outlined in HB 4. There have been arguments made regarding whether the state’s intended use of those funds is allowed under federal guidelines. A legislature fiscal officer addressed the Senate Finance and Taxation Committee on the General Fund following the committee’s approval of the bill and advised senators that, while the guidelines do not include express direction on using the funds for prisons, it is permissible to apply the resources to infrastructure and public facilities which, he indicated, include prisons.
HB 6 by Rep. Clouse and Sen. Albritton is the appropriation bill authorizing $135m from the General Fund budget to be spent on the construction, renovation, acquisition and improvement of facilities.
Several other corrections-related bills were also filed during the special session but did not pass the House and Senate. One of those bills was HB 1 by Rep. Hill, which failed to advance out of the House and would have impacted around 700 inmates, though would not necessarily result in a reduced sentence in each instance. Many lawmakers consider it to be a logical change to achieve consistency in the law, while it has been criticized by others as being soft on crimę making it a hard bill for some Republicans to vote for in an election cycle with a qualifying deadline still months away. Another such bill was SB 6 by Sen. Billy Beasley, who has three corrections facilities in his district and who filed his own prison construction bill which was similar to Rep. Clouse’s bill but would build smaller prisons and increase requirements before existing prisons can be closed.
Other bills unrelated to those issues outlined in the governor’s agenda for a special session require a much higher threshold of affirmative votes in order to move forward. A couple of coronavirus-related bills and resolutions were also filed which did not pass. Those include HB 11 by Rep. Andrew Sorrell (R-Tuscumbia), which would have prevented public K-12 schools or school districts from issuing mask mandates and would have penalized schools and districts which did not comply; as well as HJR 6 by Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia), which condemned the Biden Administration’s administration actions regarding vaccine mandates for COVID-19 vaccines.