2018 Alabama Regular Session – Pre-Session Report

, , ,

Alabama Appleseed is a non-profit, non-partisan 501(c)(3) organization founded in 1999 whose mission is to achieve justice and equity for all Alabamians. Alabama Appleseed is a member of the national Appleseed Network, which includes 18 Appleseed Centers across the U.S. and in Mexico City.

The 2018 Alabama Regular Session will begin on January 9, 2018. The session is limited to 30 meeting days within a period of 105 calendar days. Because of upcoming elections, we expect the session to conclude early – possibly around March 27, 2018.

Below is a summary of key human rights issues we anticipate will be under active, serious deliberation by the legislature in 2018.

Fair Schools, Safe Communities Campaign Legislation

Our communities are safer and our schools fairer when laws and policies are grounded in evidence. It’s time for Alabama’s laws to reflect this common-sense approach.

To make our communities safer, reduce the burden on taxpayers, and begin to address the staggering racial disparities in Alabama’s criminal justice system, the Alabama legislature should:

End Civil Asset Forfeiture
We expect legislation to be introduced that would end civil asset forfeiture (replacing it with the criminal forfeiture process in all instances), require transparency in the criminal asset forfeiture process, and prohibit Alabama law enforcement from receiving proceeds from the federal civil asset forfeiture programs. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because civil asset forfeiture:

  • Disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable;
  • ​Incentivizes the pursuit of profit over the fair administration of justice;
  • Turns the presumption of innocence on its head by forcing property owners to defend their property’s “innocence.”

Reclassify Marijuana Possession
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reclassify possession of one ounce or less of marijuana as a fine-only offense. We also expect legislation to be introduced that would create more appropriate weight thresholds for all marijuana offenses. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because Alabama’s current marijuana laws:

  • Turn otherwise law-abiding people into felons for merely possessing small quantities of marijuana;
  • ​Waste taxpayer money and misdirect law enforcement resources;
  • Disproportionately harm African Americans;
  • Needlessly ensnare Alabamians in the criminal justice system.

Ban the Box
We expect legislation to be introduced that would prohibit a state or local government employer from asking an applicant about their criminal history until a conditional offer of employment is made. Under this law, the government employer would be permitted to withdraw the job offer if the applicant’s criminal conviction was directly related to the job. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it would:

  • Help make our communities safer;
  • Better ensure a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society;
  • Protect Alabama from having to hire individuals whose criminal convictions are directly related to the job;
  • Help protect state employers from claims of discrimination.

Stop Sending Children into the Adult Justice System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would reduce the number of children sent into the adult justice system. Alabama Appleseed believes that no child should be referred to the adult justice system because children:

  • Are different than adults – they cannot vote, buy alcohol or tobacco, or gamble;
  • Have an increased aptitude for rehabilitation;
  • Are 36 times more likely to commit suicide when incarcerated in adult facilities when compared with children placed in juvenile facilities;
  • Are 34% more likely to be arrested again when compared with youth convicted of similar offenses in juvenile court.

Establish Infectious Disease Elimination Pilot Programs
Legislation has been pre-filed that would allow for syringe services programs in counties where there is a high risk of an outbreak of blood-borne diseases or where an outbreak or epidemic already exists. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Creates a data-driven approach to reducing the harms associated with drug use;
  • Increases public safety by helping to reduce the number of contaminated needles on streets, on playgrounds, and in trash receptacles, thereby protecting children, law enforcement personnel, and other emergency responders, sanitation workers, and others from needle sticks;
  • Decreases rates of HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C transmission by reducing syringe sharing among injection drug users.​

Ensure a Holistic Approach to Criminal Justice Reform
Legislation may be introduced that would authorize the construction of new prisons. Alabama Appleseed opposes this approach because it does not address the underlying problems that fuel Alabama’s high incarceration rate. Any solution to Alabama’s prison overcrowding must focus on the root issues:

  • Ending the war on drugs;
  • Prioritizing substance and mental health treatment programs;
  • Removing hurdles to reentry;
  • Expanding alternatives to incarceration.

Access to Justice Campaign Legislation

Equal justice under law requires a justice system that provides a level playing field for all Alabamians, regardless of one’s ability to pay. In order to achieve this, the state must ensure access to civil legal services, and protect the the fundamental right to counsel in criminal court.

To ensure more equal access to the courts, the Alabama legislature should:

Remove hurdle to low-income Alabamians seeking access to the courts 
Legislation has been pre-filed that would further provide for waiving the filing fee in a civil case due to the individual’s financial hardship. The legislation would specify that the pleading accompanying the statement of substantial hardship shall be considered filed on the date the statement of substantial hardship is filed with the court. The legislation would also specify that if the court finds that no hardship exists, the party shall have 30 days to submit payment. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because it:

  • Protects the rights of Alabamians;
  • Ensures greater access to the courts;
  • Create more clarity and uniformity throughout the civil justice system.

Additional Priority Legislation 

Reform Predatory Lending
We expect legislation to be introduced that would extend the loan period to 30 days for payday loans. Alabama Appleseed supports this legislation because:

  • Low-income borrowers face interest rates as high as 456% APR;
  • 30 percent of payday loan borrowers took out 12 payday loans or more according to the most recent annual data;
  • Payday borrowers paid payday lenders more than $107 million in fees in the most recent year alone.

Challenge Expansion of Alabama’s Broken Death Penalty System
We expect legislation to be introduced that would expand the list of death penalty-eligible crimes. Alabama Appleseed opposes any such legislation until Alabama’s capital punishment regime is reformed. We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. Yet, over 10 years ago 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. The vast majority of those recommendations have still not been implemented. Alabama legislators should be focused on ensuring Alabama has a fair and accurate death penalty process, not expanding the class of people who can be executed under this flawed system.

Introducing Dana Sweeney – Alabama Appleseed’s Organizer

,

My name is Dana Sweeney, and I am the newest addition to the Alabama Appleseed team. Continuing the efforts of many Appleseed advocates before me, I will be working as a statewide organizer to put an end to predatory lending practices in Alabama. I will be driving near and far to connect with Alabamians on this important issue, to build coalitions of active citizens that support fair lending practices, and to hold payday lenders accountable for cynically churning profits out of poverty.

My path to this work (and to this state) has been winding, but fortifying. I did not grow up in Alabama: I grew up in the salt marshes of southeastern Georgia reading books and dreaming of the wide world beyond the small town South. For many years, I imagined travelling to faraway places and living in huge metropolises—New York! Los Angeles! London! Beijing! It seemed to me at the time that those were the places where all the excitement was, but fortunately, my visions of extravagant elsewheres were eventually replaced by a deep sense of rootedness in the Southern spaces where I am from.

When (with the generous support of several scholarship programs) I had the opportunity to attend college, I initially hoped to attend school someplace far from home. I got far, but not that far: in August of 2013, I packed my bags and drove about 400 miles west to a new, unexpected, sweet home: The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.

While there, I studied English in the classroom, but the most important lessons of my college career came when learning about, from, and with the communities that I was beginning to call home. I began to see how our communities are haunted by the unconfronted ghosts of our past. I began to see how fear and uncertainty have the potential to steal away the best of ourselves, and to steal us away from each other, too. I began to see how injustice has, in so many ways, calcified into complacent normalcy in Alabama and across the South. But I also began to see something else: that no place changes without people committed to changing it. I began to see that no transformation is possible here but by the hard, patient, loving work of people who refuse to give up on the possibility of a more just Alabama that we can all share in together. I began to see that inequities can only persist when we cease to believe that we have the power to change them.

Putting these realizations into practice, I started working however I could to build supportive communities, to spark needed conversations, and to address issues that I saw around me. My journey has taken me in many different directions over the last several years: I have fought for (and won) student voting rights as a Vote Everywhere Ambassador for the Andrew Goodman Foundation, I have grown a literacy-focused creative writing and poetry performance program serving students across western-central Alabama, I have provided free tax preparation services to low-income communities through Impact Alabama, and I have marched on foot from Selma to Montgomery alongside young civic leaders and Civil Rights Movement veterans alike. My experiences have been varied, but they have a few consistent threads: they are all rooted in my conviction that Alabama can do and be better, all driven by my belief that we are capable of making change and being changed together, and all made possible by working in community with others across generations and difference. These are values and commonalities that I will carry forward into my work with Alabama Appleseed.

I am so excited to listen to, learn from, and be with communities across Alabama as we build a coalition to address the predatory lending crisis in our state. These days, I no longer dream of moving to shining cities far away like I did when I was a kid. Instead, I dream of staying put, of rolling up my sleeves and scrubbing the dirt off the small Southern towns that made me, of revitalizing our communities and building a shared, just, prosperous future right here. That future begins with each of us, but it is up to all of us, and I will be working every day at Appleseed to move us closer toward it together.

Introducing Leah Nelson – Alabama Appleseed’s Researcher

,

My name is Leah Nelson, and I am delighted to join Appleseed. As Researcher, I will be collecting stories, data, and information to turn into white papers, reports, and advocacy material to support Appleseed’s Access to Justice and Fair Schools, Safe Communities campaigns.

I moved to Alabama in 2010 for a two-year fellowship at the Southern Poverty Law Center, where I covered white supremacy, nativism, the Patriot movement, and other forms of extremism for SPLC’s Intelligence Project. As time passed, I felt compelled to stay. I married, started a family, bought a house, picked a college football team to root for, and moved on to a 5-year stint in the Capital Habeas Unit of the Middle District of Alabama Federal Defenders, supporting the appeals of death-sentenced individuals seeking new trials.

In that role, I witnessed the devastating consequences of Alabama’s school-to-prison pipeline, inadequate safety net, and under-resourced indigent defense system. I had clients whose first contact with the justice system came when they were prosecuted in court-like settings for misbehaving in school, and others whose distrust of the criminal justice system – distrust born of experience – ran so deep that they struggled to convey useful information that might have saved them from death row. In the year preceding my departure from the Federal Defenders, two of my clients were executed without ever having their cases reviewed on the merits because Alabama declined to provide them with attorneys in state post-conviction proceedings.

I believe that our democracy functions best when accurate, well-presented information about the world we live in is readily available to lawmakers, the courts, and people of all walks of life. As Alabama Appleseed’s Researcher, I hope to create written materials that will inform policy-making to prevent the kind of injustices my former clients, and too many other Alabamians, suffer.

Introducing Phillip Ensler – Alabama Appleseed’s Policy Counsel

,

My name is Phillip Ensler and I am excited to have recently joined Alabama Appleseed as Policy Counsel. In my role, I will provide direction and leadership to advance our policy goals. This includes managing the Access to Justice Campaign to improve access to adequate counsel for indigent clients in criminal and civil cases.

I graduated from the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York this past May. Although I am a native New Yorker, coming to Montgomery is like returning home – or as we say down here, Sweet Home Alabama!

My history in Alabama dates back to when I was in college and visited Montgomery, Selma, and Birmingham to see the sacred sites of the Civil Rights Movement. I was humbled and inspired by standing in the very places where Martin Luther King Jr., John Lewis, Rosa Parks, and countless other heroes and foot soldiers had the courage to stand up for a more just and equal Alabama.

Despite the significant progress that has been made, I was also aware that there was still much more to be done. In this spirit, I moved to Montgomery in 2012 to serve as a Teach for America corps member, where I worked to help close the educational achievement gap. My students were just as talented and intelligent as students at any other school, but they were not given the same opportunities to succeed due their racial and socioeconomic backgrounds.

My experience in the classroom motivated me to attend law school in order to gain the skills and knowledge to fight to make the law fairer so everyone in Alabama can achieve their full potential. I was committed to returning to Alabama because it was a community that welcomed me with open arms, and it is where I have met some of the most dedicated and passionate people in my life.

After my second year of law school, I worked as a legal intern at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, where I worked on juvenile rights and education issues. And now, I am looking forward to the work Appleseed will do to ensure that more students are receiving the education and opportunities they deserve and do not become just another number in the system of mass incarceration.

We also have much work to do in the area of civil and criminal defense legal services for disadvantaged Alabamians. The words “Equal Justice Under the Law” are engraved on the façade of the United States Supreme Court. Yet in order to fully live up to that democratic principle in Alabama, we must ensure that all citizens have access to adequate lawyers, regardless of their socioeconomic status. Our justice system should not depend on which side has deeper financial pockets.

That is why at Appleseed we will be working with partners throughout the state to increase funding for civil legal services. This will ensure that those who cannot afford to hire a lawyer can continue to have access to legal assistance for vital services such as applying for veterans benefits or seeking to remain in their home in the face of eviction.

On the criminal side, we will similarly work with stakeholders to ensure that indigent criminal defendants receive adequate counsel. The determination of truth and justice in a criminal case should not be predicated on whether a defendant can afford an attorney. At the Innocence Project, where I also did a legal internship, we saw in case after case that defendants were wrongfully convicted and incarcerated for decades because they did not have access to adequate counsel during their cases. In order to prevent such injustices in Alabama, we will examine which methods are most effective in upholding indigent defendants’ Constitutional right to counsel. We will then advocate for these best practices to be implemented state-wide.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “we are determined here in Montgomery to work and fight until justice runs ‘down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream.’” At Appleseed we are determined to continue that effort for all of Alabama. I am grateful to be a part of such work and I look forward to working with activists, partners, and leaders throughout the state to make it happen.

Introducing Lisa Cagle – 2017 Summer Legal Intern

,

My name is Lisa Cagle and I will be a second year law student at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama. While I am originally from North Dakota, I am excited to be living in Alabama and enjoying the warm weather year round. I may not have been born here, but I got here as fast as I could.

My background is not your typical law student background. I have a Bachelor’s of Science in Chemical Engineering from UCLA. However, life had other plans for me, and I became a teacher in 2008. During my first year teaching, I read an inspirational book by Wes Stafford titled Too Small To Ignore that changed the way I viewed teaching. In this book, Stafford stresses the importance of focusing on children and their unique needs and not waiting until a person has reached adulthood to begin to consider them a quality member of society. Shortly after that, I met my first child with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Finding unique ways to teach that child was an amazing experience for me. As a result, I spent many of my continuing education hours learning about special needs and how to design a classroom setting and modify my teaching style to accommodate children with special needs. Over the course of eight years of teaching, I had the privilege to work with several children with varying needs and the honor to help educate families on special needs and the accommodations and therapies available to help these children learn and thrive in a structured school environment.

After several years of working with children and families, I decided to go to law school to enable me to continue to work with families in ways that I was unable to as a teacher. I desire to do more than recommend other resources and professionals to families in need. I would like to be one of the resources and professionals that a family can turn to. This is also one of the reasons why I am excited to intern at Alabama Appleseed this summer. Appleseed has a reputation for creating change to better the lives of people in Alabama and I am excited to be a part of this.

My project this summer will be the school to prison pipeline. According to the American Bar Association (ABA), the school to prison pipeline is the metaphor for the student disciplinary issues at school that result in students leaving school and entering the criminal justice system. The ABA has done research to discover that a disproportionate number of minority students and students with special needs are dismissed from school, resulting in a disproportionate number of minority students and students with special needs in the criminal justice system. As a former teacher, this issue is near and dear to my heart. I have received training on ways to help children with special needs adjust to a classroom setting and believe that all children deserve a chance for a quality education, not just the ones who have the ability to conform to a “typical classroom setting.” I am honored and thrilled to working as an intern for Alabama Appleseed and am looking forward to continuing Appleseed’s work this summer.

Introducing Ellen Larson – 2017 Summer Legal Intern

,

My name is Ellen, and I am looking forward to being an intern this summer with Alabama Appleseed! I just completed my first year of law school at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Alabama. I grew up in the Nashville, Tennessee area, and I graduated from college at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, Tennessee.

Before coming to law school, I worked for nonprofit organizations providing educational resources to immigrant and low-income communities. I was an AmeriCorps member in Arlington, Virginia with the Arlington Education and Employment Program, where I taught English as a Second Language to adult immigrants from a multitude of countries and of a variety of ages. After that, I was an AmeriCorps member in Nashville, Tennessee with an after-school program for middle school students. That opportunity led to working for The Center for Refugees and Immigrants of Tennessee (CRIT), where I was a Site Coordinator for one of its after-school programs for middle school students. Later, I was promoted to being the Associate Director of all of CRIT’s after-school programs. Around that time, I became interested in going to law school to be an attorney. CRIT had an immigration attorney, and the work the attorney did stuck out to me. He helped immigrants, who were already positively impacting the Nashville community, establish residence in this country after suffering traumatic situations in their home countries. Before going to law school, I also shadowed public defenders. One day I went back in the county jail and met a young girl, about 15 years old, who was charged with making meth with a male about 20 years old. She struck me as a girl who may have made a bad choice as to who she became friends with but if given the opportunity she would make better choices.

I am excited about the work I will do this summer with Alabama Appleseed. The major project I will be working on is to set the groundwork for a heir property project to help individuals gain clear title to their land. Heir property is property that automatically goes to a deceased person’s heirs when the deceased person did not provide for the ownership of the property in a will. Although there might be numerous heirs to a property, often only one heir is using the property. In fact, many of the heirs are probably not aware of their interest in the property. The main issue with heir property is that the property cannot be used in a way as it could with clear title. For example, the property cannot be leased or financed without the consent of all the heirs to the property. In addition, the heir property owner using the land can be forced to leave if others with an interest in the property bring a judicial partition action. This often happens when the heirs who are not using the land sell their interest to a non-family member.

Resolving heir property issues is particularly difficult for people who do not have access to legal assistance. Alabama Appleseed’s goal is to create resources that will help volunteer attorneys and law students navigate the hurdles individuals face when seeking clear title to their land.

Other projects I look forward to working on this summer include researching barriers to justice and policies that feed Alabama’s school-to-prison pipeline. I am very excited to be working on these projects because I know it will make a difference in the lives of individuals finding themselves in the juvenile and criminal justice systems. I chose to intern with Alabama Appleseed because the organization is effective at advocating for just policy for Alabama residents. I look forward to furthering Appleseed’s work this summer!