Alabama Deserves a Vote on Predatory Lending Reform

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by Dana Sweeney, Organizer

For years, there has been widespread, bipartisan agreement that we must reel in predatory payday lenders in Alabama. According to data collected by the State Banking Department, about 215,000 Alabamians took out 1.8 million payday loans between October 2016 and September 2017, averaging more than eight loans per customer. Even though payday borrowers must be able to show that they have a source of income before being issued a loan, 87% of payday borrowers in Alabama still had to take out multiple, small-dollar loans during the year to get by — almost always to meet necessary living expenses like rent, utilities, and grocery bills, or to account for emergencies like unexpected medical costs or car repairs.

As too many Alabamians know, those small-dollar loans often balloon into large-dollar debts due to high interest rates. Alabama’s payday borrowers pay over $100 million every year on average in loan fees charged to initiate loans and to “roll them over” when full repayment is not possible. There is wide-ranging public agreement that the status quo for payday lending must change, especially when that status quo means that predatory lenders issue loans with interest rates as high as 456% APR and can demand full loan repayment within as few as 10 days.  

This year, Alabama Appleseed has been working with a broad coalition of churches, community foundations, local organizations, credit unions, direct social service providers, and individuals that spans the state and the political spectrum. We are supporting the 30 Days to Pay Bill (SB 138), a simple, modest reform that would set payday loans on the same 30 day repayment schedule as all other household bills. It would start to curb runaway interest rates and prevent many of the debt traps that currently ensnare thousands upon thousands of Alabamians every year. It enjoys bipartisan support in the legislature, and it is an opportunity for the legislature to finally take a step forward on predatory lending reform after years of failing to deliver. All we need now is the chance for senators to vote on it.

The bill has been slowly inching its way through the Senate, but it has not yet been put on the calendar to be debated and voted on. If this bill doesn’t start picking up steam soon, we may run out of time — again — to protect Alabama’s payday borrowers. Alabama deserves a vote. Alabama’s borrowers deserve a vote. We urge you to contact your senator and ask them to do everything in their power to propel this bill forward.

SAMPLE CALL SCRIPT

“Hello, my name is _________________, and I am one of Senator ____________’s constituents from ______[town]_______. I’m calling today because I would like to urge Senator ___________ to do everything in [his/her/their] power to ensure that SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, passes through the Senate. So many of us have been patient and persistent all session while waiting for this bill to advance through the Senate, just as we have been waiting for years for the legislature to deliver on predatory lending reform. We have waited long enough, and so have Alabama’s borrowers, who continue to suffer because of the legislature’s failure to address this issue. Please let Senator ________ know that SB 138 is a top priority for me as a voter, and that I want to see [him/her/them] doing everything in [his/her/their] power to support and advance this bill. It is bipartisan. It is simple. It is overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. Thank you.”

SAMPLE EMAIL SCRIPT

“Dear Senator ____________,

I am writing you to urge you to do everything in your power to pass SB 138, the 30 Days to Pay Bill, through the Senate. As someone who lives in _____[town]______, I know how damaging predatory lending practices are to our community, and as a voter, one of my top priorities is seeing SB 138 passed. So many of us have been writing and calling during this legislative session, and there has been bipartisan agreement that we need predatory lending reform for years. It’s past time that something is done, and it’s past time for the Senate to vote on SB 138. Please work with your colleagues to pass this bill as soon as possible, as we are running out of time — again — to pass reform that protects Alabama’s borrowers from predatory lenders. This bill is simple and overwhelmingly supported by the public. We deserve a vote, and Alabama’s borrowers deserve relief. I will be looking for your leadership on this. Thank you.

Sincerely,

_______________”

Make your voice heard! It can make the difference. 

​Alabama’s Death Penalty Process is Broken

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On Thursday, October 19, the state of Alabama executed Torrey Twayne McNabb by lethal injection, using a secret execution protocol that has repeatedly resulted in botched procedures.

The execution did not go well. After reassuring his family that he was not afraid, Mr. McNabb was injected with midazolam, a valium-like sedative, and executioners twice conducted a “consciousness check,” brushing Mr. McNabb’s eyelid, calling his name, and pinching his shoulder. Mr. McNabb responded in a purposeful-looking way to both checks, moving his hand, raising his arm, and grimacing, but the execution proceeded anyway.

Afterwards, Commissioner Jefferson S. Dunn told reporters executioners had followed the protocol “as it is written” – an unverifiable claim, since Alabama has refused to release details of its protocol, despite multiple public records requests and current litigation by a local minister. Dunn said he was “confident” that McNabb was “more than unconscious” when he moved, characterizing his movements as “involuntary” and saying they are common occurrences at executions.

Indeed they are. Ronald Bert Smith, Jr. heaved and coughed for 13 minutes of his December 2016 execution. And purposeful-looking movement was observed during the January 2016 execution of Christopher Brooks, who reportedly opened one eye, and the June 2017 execution of Robert Melson, whose hands and arms reportedly quivered and shook against his restraints.

These facts alone should be enough to persuade Gov. Kay Ivey and legislators that Alabama’s death penalty process is broken. But they are not the only reasons. In 2015, judges ordered the release of three men – Anthony Ray Hinton, Montez Spradley, and William Ziegler – from Alabama’s death row due to evidence of innocence or prosecutorial misconduct, errors, and abuses egregious enough to warrant reversal. Including Hinton, eight Alabama death row prisoners have been exonerated in the modern death penalty era. That many of them spent decades behind bars should give pause to supporters of attempts, including 2017’s so-called “Fair Justice Act,” to shorten the time between sentencing and execution.

As far back as 2006, the American Bar Association’s Alabama Death Penalty Assessment Team, consisting of eight distinguished Alabama attorneys, made a variety of specific recommendations for reform. Recognizing that Alabama’s death penalty process ensured neither accuracy nor fairness, these Alabama experts called for a temporary moratorium on executions while the state worked to address them. So far, only one of these, calling for an end to the practice of allowing elected judges to override a jury’s recommendation of life without parole in favor of a death sentence, has been enacted.

Before Alabama even considers moving forward with a new execution, it must implement the Assessment Team’s recommendations and empanel a new commission to review emerging issues, including the demonstrably problematic execution protocol. In devising a new commission, Alabama lawmakers could look to the example of Oklahoma, which implemented a moratorium and empaneled a commission to review its capital punishment system in 2016, after a disastrously botched execution, and revelations of shocking ineptitude and deception by top Department of Corrections officials brought international condemnation and undermined public confidence. Following a year-long investigation, the commission unanimously recommended an extension on the moratorium “until significant reforms are accomplished.”

Alabama’s system suffers from many of the same flaws as Oklahoma’s, including an execution protocol that has resulted in several botched executions; inadequate safeguards against the execution of the innocent; and an over-burdened and under-resourced defense bar.

While Alabamians may disagree on whether we should have a death penalty, we should all agree that if Alabama has a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Currently it fails this basic test.  It is unconscionable that Alabama continues to execute individuals without addressing the fundamental problems with our death penalty process.

The legislature voted to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable …  Now it’s up to the Governor to stand up for justice!

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Eight times since 1976 the state of Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. One of those exonerees, Anthony Ray Hinton, spent almost 30 years on Alabama’s death row before his volunteer lawyers were able to show that the government relied on flawed evidence – that he was innocent. Mr. Hinton’s case shows that it can take years to uncover evidence of innocence. Despite this knowledge, last week the Alabama legislature voted to “streamline” Alabama’s death penalty process. As Mr. Hinton wrote last month, had SB 187 been in place while he sat on death row, he would likely have been executed despite his innocence.

Regardless of where each of us stand on the death penalty, opposition to this legislation should be universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. Unfortunately, Alabama legislators disagreed.

Proponents of this legislation, including Alabama’s new Attorney General, are using one of the oldest tricks in the book to gain support . . . fear. In  a recent op ed by Attorney General Marshall, he began by retelling the gruesome facts surrounding a 37 year-old murder. In General Marshall’s death penalty narrative, the government always convicts the right person. It’s a perfect justice system (found in the fiction aisle). According to the Attorney General’s logic, if the facts are gruesome then justice must be swift, regardless of those pesky innocence issue.

In reality, SB 187 – the so-called “Fair Justice Act” – would:

  1. Undermine the ability of post-conviction counsel to fully defend their client by limiting their ability to conduct a thorough investigation, thus increasing the likelihood that Alabama would execute an innocent person (e.g. under this bill the direct and post-conviction appeals must occur at the same time, making it impossible for the post conviction counsel to properly investigate whether the direct appeal counsel provided ineffective assistance of counsel); and;
  2. Fail to ensure the appointment of qualified counsel at the post-conviction stage, thus compounding the issues surrounding ineffective assistance of counsel that already plague the trial and direct appeal stages.

While the facts surrounding a murder may be gruesome, they are reiterated to distract us – to make us forget what the legislation before us would actually do, which is to prioritize rushing to an execution over ensuring the accuracy of the conviction. The impact of SB 187 is clear – it would make it more difficult for an innocent person to prove their innocence. And, as Jennifer Thompson from Healing Justice pointed out, when an innocent person sits in prison, the actual guilty person remains free to commit additional crimes.

We’re not the only one to raise a red flag around this legislation – here’s a snippet of the widespread opposition to SB 187:

  • Linda Klein, President, American Bar Association – “The American Bar Association takes no position for or against the death penalty itself, but our members – who include prosecutors, defense lawyers, and judges – have long been committed to ensuring that capital punishment is fair, unbiased, and accurate. Our expertise provides us with a unique perspective regarding the likely pitfalls and unintended consequences of this legislation.”
  • Anthony Ray Hinton, Death Row Survivor – “I spent 30 years on Alabama’s death row for a crime I did not commit. If proposed changes to Alabama’s postconviction procedures under consideration by the state legislature had been enacted, I would have been executed despite my innocence.”
  • Jennifer Thompson, Founder, Healing Justice – “By prioritizing speed of the death penalty process over accuracy, SB 187 will not only place unnecessary pain on victims and survivors but also undermine the safety of others. Every day an innocent person sits in prison, the guilty person is free to commit additional crimes.”
  • Montgomery Advertiser Editorial Board – “Alabama legislators this past week wrongly approved a bill that shortens the appeal process for people convicted of a capital crime and facing an execution. Too much is at stake to take decisions of execution lightly. Mainly, it’s someone’s life and when the state makes the choice to kill a person, we are all responsible for that death.”
  • Ronald Sullivan Jr., Professor, Harvard Law School  – “The deceitfully named bill (it is neither fair nor just) would shorten the time for appeals and reduce already inadequate resources that death row prisoners have when appealing their convictions. Alabama has clearly put its head in the sand and is ignoring its own disgraceful experience with wrongful convictions and the death penalty, as well as current recommendations from other states.”
  • Lisa Borden, Attorney in Birmingham – “While this may sound like a good plan to those unfamiliar with the process, the proposal is neither fair nor just, and will only increase the already substantial likelihood that Alabama will execute a wrongfully convicted person.”
  • Stephen Cooper, Former Assistant Public Defender in Alabama – “Conscientious Alabamians concerned that, like Ray Hinton, freed after a hellacious 30 years on Alabama’s death row proclaiming his innocence, additional innocents might be unjustly thrust towards terrible and inhumane deaths – without an adequate chance to prove their innocence and/or that their constitutional rights were violated – you need to speak up. You need to speak up now!”

The awesome power of the government to kill in our name must be based on a fair and accurate process. SB 187 would do the opposite. We urge Governor Ivey to veto this legislation.

Alabama Legislature Sends Bill to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Even Less Fair and Accurate to the Governor

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed, regarding SB 187.

Eight times since 1976 Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the Alabama legislature voted to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable.”

“Opposition to this legislation should have been universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. The Alabama legislature disagreed.”

“We urge Governor Ivey to veto this bill. This is not about where you stand on the death penalty, it’s about where you stand on the need to ensure a fair and accurate death penalty process.”

SB 187 will now go to Governor Kay Ivey. For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

House Votes to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Even Less Fair and Accurate

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 187, which the Alabama House of Representatives passed today:

Eight times since 1976 Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the Alabama House voted today to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable.”

“Opposition to this legislation should be universal. In the United States, the importance of ensuring a fair and accurate death penalty process should be non-negotiable. Today, the Alabama House disagreed.”

For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

House Committee Votes to Make Alabama’s Death Penalty Process Less Reliable, Says Alabama Appleseed

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 187, which the Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee favorably reported today:

“Eight times in the modern death penalty era Alabama has sent a person to death row and gotten it wrong. Yet, instead of focusing on ways to keep Alabama from making another potentially deadly mistake, the House Judiciary Committee voted today to make Alabama’s death penalty process even less reliable. Regardless of where each of us stand on the death penalty, we should all agree that Alabama must do everything in its power to not execute an innocent person. SB 187 goes in the opposite direction – it would increase the likelihood that Alabama could make a fatal mistake.”

For additional information regarding SB 187, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

Oppose SB 187 – Don’t Further Undermine the Fairness and Accuracy of Alabama’s Death Penalty Process

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SB 187 would set a 365‐day time limit to file a Rule 32 petition challenging an individual’s capital conviction and require this time to run concurrently with the direct appeal. It would also set other deadlines, requiring judges to rule within a specific time periods.

It misses the underlying problem – Alabama’s capital punishment system doesn’t ensure fairness or accuracy. An estimated 1 in every 25 people on death row in the U.S. is innocent, and Alabama is not immune from the potential to execute an innocent person. In fact, in the modern death penalty era, Alabama has convicted and sentenced to death eight people who were later exonerated and freed from death row. Despite Alabama’s high number of exonerations, SB 187 would make it more difficult for a person to prove their innocence. Regardless of where each of us stand on the death penalty, we should all oppose legislation, like SB 187, that increases Alabama’s risk of executing an innocent person.

It will move Alabama further away from American Bar Association recommendations. In 2006 the American Bar Association published a report that found problems throughout Alabama’s death penalty process – from interactions with law enforcement at the beginning to the post-conviction process at the end. In fact, the concerns were so serious that the ABA report recommended a temporary moratorium on executions until the recommendations were implemented. Over ten years later, the vast majority of those recommendations have still not been implemented, including the need to ensure that “all poor defendants receive competent counsel at every stage of the capital process.” Despite the ABA’s report documenting concerns around ineffective assistance of counsel for people on death row, SB 187 would eliminate the ability for state court judges to hear some of these claims. SB 187 would move Alabama in the wrong direction.

It does not ensure effective assistance of counsel. While SB 187 includes a provision that would finally provide appointed counsel for indigent individuals during the post-conviction review stage, the bill fails to ensure that appointed counsel would have the qualifications necessary to provide effective representation. Instead, it makes vague suggestions that the Alabama Supreme Court and the Alabama Bar should consider when creating a list of “qualified counsel.” Capital litigation involves unique and complex issues, and thus requires counsel who have this specialized training and experience. By failing to ensure access to qualified counsel at the post-conviction stage, SB 187 would merely compound issues caused by ineffective assistance of counsel during the trial and appeal stages. In the end, indigent individuals would continue to face execution without qualified counsel.

SB 187 increases the likelihood that Alabama will execute an innocent person.

Alabama Appleseed Praises House Vote to End Judicial Override  

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Today the Alabama House of Representatives passed SB 16, which will remove the power of a judge to override a jury’s sentencing verdict in capital cases. SB 16 will now move to the Governor for consideration.

“Alabama is the only state in America that allows judges to override the vote of a jury and impose the death penalty,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “Today, Alabama came one step closer to ending this arbitrary and unfair practice.”

Research has shown that jurors are more likely to vote for life without parole if they have some doubt about the guilt of the individual, even if it is not enough doubt to acquit the individual. This fact suggests that capital cases where a jury votes for life without parole are more likely to involve weaker evidence, and thus a higher likelihood of a wrongful conviction. Between 1981 and 2015 judicial override cases accounted for 50 percent of those wrongfully convicted and freed from Alabama’s death row, yet accounted for less than 25 percent of all death sentences.

“This bill will help reduce the possibility of executing an innocent person,” said Knaack. “The evidence from Alabama is clear – individuals sentenced to death as a result of a judicial override were much more likely to have been wrongfully convicted in the first place. Regardless of your position on the death penalty, we should all agree that the state should do everything in its power to not execute an innocent person.”

SB 16 will help remove the political pressure placed on elected judges.

“Sentencing decisions, particularly those involving the death penalty, should be free from politics,” continued Knaack. “But, because Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected, political calculations can lead judges to arbitrarily override a jury’s vote. This legislation will remove the political pressure placed on judges to override a jury and sentence a person to death.”

SB 16 will help bring Alabama in line with best practice. In its 2006 review of Alabama’s death penalty system, the American Bar Association recommended that Alabama eliminate judicial override.

“This legislation is a first step toward bringing Alabama’s death penalty process in line with American Bar Association recommendations,” said Knaack. “But, as the American Bar Association pointed out over ten years ago, much work remains before Alabama can consider its death penalty process to be fair and accurate.”

SB 16 will help Alabama, and not the U.S. Supreme Court, determine its death penalty process.

“As the U.S. Supreme Court’s evolving death penalty case law makes clear, the days are numbered for statutes that permit a judge to sentence a person to death in spite of the jury’s vote for life without parole,” continued Knaack. “This bill will help spare Alabama taxpayers some of the costs associated with future litigation around a losing fight. This is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty – it is about Alabama controlling its death penalty process.”

“We commend Senator Brewbaker, Senator Sanders, and Representative England for their leadership in this effort,” concluded Knaack.

Alabama Appleseed Praises House Committee Vote to End Judicial Override

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Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 16, which the Alabama House of Representatives Judiciary Committee favorably reported today:

We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. SB 16 would help minimize unreliable and arbitrary death sentences and move Alabama one step closer to ending its outlier status. We commend Senator Brewbaker and Representative England for their leadership in this effort. But, as the American Bar Association pointed out over ten years ago, much work remains before Alabama can consider its death penalty process to be fair and accurate.

SB 16 will now move to the House floor for consideration. For additional information regarding SB 16, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

Support SB 16 – Help Minimize Unreliable and Arbitrary Death Sentences

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SB 16 would prohibit a judge from overriding a jury’s recommendation and imposing a death sentence in cases where the jury voted for life without parole in a capital case. Currently a judge is not required to accept a jury’s vote in the sentencing phase.

​End Alabama’s outlier status. Alabama is the only state in America that allows judges to override the vote of a jury and impose the death penalty after a jury recommends life without parole. Judicial override grants a judge the power to arbitrarily sentence a person to death. It’s time for Alabama to end this unfair practice.

Reduce the possibility of executing an innocent person. Jurors are more likely to vote for life without parole if they have some doubt about the guilt of the individual, even if it is not enough doubt to acquit the individual. This fact suggests that capital cases where a jury votes for life without parole are more likely to involve weaker evidence, and thus a higher likelihood of a wrongful conviction. And, the evidence from Alabama supports this. Between 1981 and 2015 judicial override cases accounted for 50 percent of those wrongfully convicted and freed from Alabama’s death row, yet accounted for less than 25 percent of all death sentences. Regardless of your position on the death penalty, we should all agree that the state should do everything in its power to not execute an innocent person.

Remove the political pressure placed on elected judges. Sentencing decisions, particularly those involving the death penalty, should be free from politics. But, because Alabama’s trial and appellate court judges are elected, political calculations can lead judges to arbitrarily override a jury’s vote. As the Equal Justice Initiative found, “[t]the proportion of death sentences imposed by override often is elevated in election years.” This legislation will remove the political pressure placed on judges to override a jury and sentence a person to death.

Bring Alabama in line with best practice.  In its 2006 review of Alabama’s death penalty system, the American Bar Association recommended that Alabama eliminate judicial override. As it stated, “[j]udge override diminishes jurors’ sense of responsibility for the enormous life and death decision they must make, and results in jurors paying less attention to jury instructions and deliberating for less time. All of this can result in unfairness and inaccuracy.” This legislation is a first step toward bringing Alabama’s death penalty process in line with ABA recommendations.

SB 16 will help protect against arbitrary and unreliable death sentences.