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.

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.

SB 200 ensures that the State of Alabama, its agencies, and its political subdivisions cannot ask a prospective employee if they have ever been arrested for or convicted of any crime, with certain exceptions. A state employer may ask a prospective employee about their criminal background, but only after a conditional offer of employment is made. A state employer may withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that is directly related to the job. SB 200 also establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal history.

Helps make our communities safer. Alabama has approximately 24,000 people in its prisons and another 13,000 in its jails. The vast majority of those individuals will be released and return to their communities. To reduce the recidivism rate, the U.S. Department of Justice has identified three key elements to successful re-entry into our communities. One of these key elements is helping these individuals find and keep a job. This legislation is a first step toward realizing a key element to reducing recidivism and making our communities safer.

Better ensures a second chance for Alabamians who have already paid their debt to society. Under current law, an otherwise fully qualified applicant can be denied employment long after they have completed their sentence. This practice erects counterproductive hurdles in front of individuals seeking to rebuild their lives and provide for their families. Denying a person’s application without considering their qualifications or rehabilitation prevents people who’ve completed their sentence from getting a fair chance at a fresh start.

African Americans are disproportionately harmed by the criminal history background box on employment applications. Because African Americans are disproportionately caught up in our criminal justice system, they are disproportionately harmed when seeking employment. For example, even though African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly the same rate, African Americans are more than four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama. Thus, those individuals will be disproportionately impacted when filling out a job application that includes a criminal history box. This bill offers an opportunity to begin to address the long-term consequences of a criminal justice system that disproportionately harms African Americans.

Protects Alabama from having to hire an individual whose criminal conviction is directly related to the job. Under this legislation a state employer would be permitted to withdraw the offer of employment after learning of the prospective employee’s criminal conviction background if the prospective employee has a conviction that “is directly related to the position of employment sought.” For example, this provision protects a state employer from being forced to hire a convicted embezzler to keep its books.

Helps protect state employers from claims of discrimination. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits employment discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) issued a guidance document for entities covered by Title VII, including state and local governments, to help eliminate unlawful discrimination in the employment hiring process. As outlined in the guidance document, an employer must show that the selection criteria use or selection procedures are “job related and consistent with business necessity.” Specifically related to an applicant’s criminal record, the guidance says that the individualized screening process should consider “at least the nature of the crime, the time elapsed, and the nature of the job” or otherwise comply with the EEOC Uniform Guidelines on Employee Selection Procedures. SB 200 establishes clear criteria for state agencies to consider during the screening process when evaluating a person’s prior criminal record, which will better protect state agencies from claims of discrimination under Title VII.

SB 200 is a win-win! It better ensures that Alabamians are judged on their merit, not their mistakes and protects state employers.

Montgomery, AL – The following statement is by Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed regarding SB 16, which was signed by Governor Kay Ivey today:

We should all agree that if we have a death penalty then the process should be fair and accurate. SB 16 will help minimize unreliable and arbitrary death sentences and move Alabama one step closer to ending its outlier status. We commend Senator Brewbaker, Senator Sanders, and Representative England for their leadership in this effort. And, we thank Governor Ivey for her quick action to finally put an end to judicial override in Alabama. 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 became effective immediately. For additional information regarding SB 16, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

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.

Montgomery, AL – Alabama Appleseed today asked the Alabama House Judiciary Committee to favorably report HB 269, which would make possession of one ounce or less of marijuana a fine only offense ($250/first offense & $500/subsequent offenses) and ensure that a conviction for possessing one ounce or less would not result in a criminal record.

“This legislation provides Alabama with the opportunity to stop needlessly ensnaring thousands of people, disproportionately African American, in the criminal justice system each year for the mere possession of marijuana,” said Frank Knaack, executive director of Alabama Appleseed. “This legislation is not about whether marijuana is good or bad – it’s about not turning otherwise law-abiding people into criminals. The Alabama legislature should take this modest step.”

According to data submitted to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency, in 2015 more Alabamians were arrested for the possession of marijuana than any other drug offense, including trafficking.

“The impact of an arrest for a drug offense is often significant and can last for years,” Knaack continued. “Even an arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana can affect an individual’s access to student financial aid, jobs, and the polls. It’s time for Alabama to take a common sense response to the possession of marijuana.”

While African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, in 2015 African Americans made up just 26.8% of Alabama’s population, yet made up more than 61% of all marijuana possession arrests.

“Like with many of Alabama’s criminal laws, the war on marijuana is enforced along color lines. This legislation offers a small opportunity to address this disparity,” Knaack concluded.

For additional information regarding HB 269, please read Alabama Appleseed’s fact sheet.

HB 269 would make possession of under one ounce of marijuana a fine only offense ($250/first offense & $500/subsequent offenses). A conviction for possession of under one ounce of marijuana would not appear on the individual’s criminal record.

Alabama is turning otherwise law-abiding people into felons for merely possessing marijuana. Under current law, a person arrested for possession of marijuana can be convicted of unlawful possession of marijuana in the first degree (a felony) if they have a previous marijuana possession conviction, regardless of the amount. This is not just a problem on paper. In 2015, unlawful possession of marijuana in the 1st degree was the sixth most frequent felony offense at conviction (901 convictions). Between October 2010 and September 2015 there were 5,014 felony marijuana possession convictions. It’s time for Alabama to take the term “felony” seriously and ensure that individuals who possess marijuana for personal use are not turned into felons.

The war on marijuana wastes money and misuses law enforcement resources. Despite a war on marijuana now stretching into its fourth decade, prohibition has failed to eradicate or even diminish its use. In 2010 alone, Alabama spent $13,286,722 on the enforcement of its marijuana possession laws. These arrests involve a judge, a clerk, deputies, and prosecutors, all paid for by Alabama’s taxpayers. It’s time for Alabama to focus its resources on strategies and programs that will help keep our communities safe – investigating serious crimes and investing in substance abuse and mental health programs. It’s time to end this failed war.

The War on Marijuana Disproportionately Impacts African Americans. While African Americans and whites use marijuana at roughly equal rates, in 2015 African Americans were over four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in Alabama.* To put it another way, in 2015 African Americans made up just 26.8% of Alabama’s population, yet made up over 61% of all marijuana possession arrests.* The war on marijuana is enforced along color lines.

The War on Marijuana needlessly ensnares Alabamians in the criminal justice system. In 2015, more Alabamians were arrested for the possession of marijuana than any other drug offense (2,642 arrests – 26 percent of all drug arrests were for marijuana possession).* The impact of an arrest for a drug offense is often significant and can last for years. Even an arrest for the possession of a small amount of marijuana can affect an individual’s access to student financial aid, jobs, and the custody of their child. The war on marijuana comes with a tremendous human and financial cost.

HB 269 would create a fairer, more compassionate, and smarter response to the possession of marijuana.

* This number just reflects data reported to the Alabama Law Enforcement Agency in its 2015 Crime in Alabama Report, available at http://www.alea.gov/Documents/Documents/CrimeInAlabama-2015.pdf.

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.

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.

HB 32 would (1) 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 and (2) require a verdict of death to be based on a unanimous vote of the jury.

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.

Death is an irrevocable punishment and should require the highest standard. Alabama is one of only four states that doesn’t require a unanimous jury vote in capital cases. Juries in capital cases are already structurally biased toward a death sentence because individuals opposed to the death penalty are excluded from the jury. At a minimum, Alabama should require that all jurors agree that the state met its burden to impose a death sentence. This common sense bill will help reduce the likelihood of a fatal mistake.

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.

Let’s not wait for the U.S. Supreme Court to tell Alabama what it must do. 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. The legislature can spare Alabama taxpayers the costs associated with future litigation around a losing fight and the costs associated with resentencing hearings if it takes the common sense step of amending its capital sentencing statute before the U.S. Supreme Court orders our state to make this change. This is not about whether you support or oppose the death penalty – it is about Alabama controlling its death penalty process.

​HB 32 will help protect against arbitrary and unreliable death sentences.