By Paul DeMarco
We are about to see the Alabama Legislature adjourn their regular session for the year in the next week or so.
This is the first session for about three dozen new lawmakers in the Alabama House of Representatives and Senate who just were elected last November. A supermajority of Republicans hold power at the State House and vehemently campaigned on public safety as one of their most important priorities.
Thus, it should be a real concern for citizens that Alabama legislators are on the verge of passing legislation (HB 229) that would allow certain convicted felons who are serving a sentence of life without parole yet another opportunity to appeal for early release outside of the normal appeals process. This means more victims having to go through the trauma of having to appear and beg a court to keep the offender behind bars for the sentence that has already been imposed.
The supporters of this legislation explain that the bill excludes those convicted of homicide, sex crimes and those who caused serious physical injury. However, this bill would give certain inmates yet another opportunity to petition a Judge to be released despite their previous conviction and sentence, which could include those convicted of such offenses as first-degree robbery. Thus, someone who had previously been convicted of threatening someone with a deadly weapon, who already had prior felony convictions, could be released from prison over the objections of a prosecutor and the crime victim.
Interestingly, the bill says the victim has the right to oppose the release of the inmate and testify at the hearing, but there is no provision in the legislation for the victim to be notified of the hearing or that the inmate is petitioning for an early release. How can the victim express their concerns about the resentencing if they are unaware the case is back in court? By contrast, when parole hearings occur, Alabama law specifically outlines how and when the victim must be notified prior to the hearing. We cannot assume that victim notification will miraculously occur (especially since these are cases more than 23 years old); we saw how botched victim notification was 4 months ago when the Retroactive Mandatory Supervised Release law went into effect. Even after Senator April Weaver pointed out this shortcoming in committee last week, lawmakers still gave the current bill a “favorable report.”
When victims have the courage to come forward and report crimes, and follow through with prosecution, we should honor their role in our criminal justice system and not snub them years later when an inmate seeks to overturn their sentence.
There has been an ongoing effort by progressive advocacy groups and Democrats to weaken the Alabama criminal justice system and unfortunately some Republicans are following their lead. We have seen the horrific results of these soft-on-crime policies nationwide, as weak laws lead to more violence and more crime victims.
Alabama voters need to pay attention to what their legislators are supporting in Montgomery and hold accountable those who vote for laws that are contrary to promises they made on the campaign trail or the priorities of their constituents.
Paul DeMarco is a former member of the Alabama House of Representatives and can be found on Twitter at @Paul_DeMarco