By Leah Nelson, Appleseed Research Director

As Alabama struggles to contain Covid-19, the illness caused by the novel coronavirus that has gripped the world’s attention since January, law enforcement officials and judges across the state have taken bold steps to prioritize public health over punishment by slowing arrests for low-level offenses and releasing from jails individuals who are not a danger to the community.

The results have been extraordinary. Between January and late April, at least 13 counties shrank their jail populations by more than a quarter, according to the Prison Policy Initiative. Baldwin and Houston counties, both notorious for their tough-on-crime conservatism, each reduced their jail population by about a third. Alabama’s largest county, Jefferson, with a jail capacity of 1,200, dropped its population below 650.

These counties’ decisive action has likely saved lives. Nationally, prisons and jails have been hotspots for the virus’ spread. That’s certainly true in Tuscaloosa, which on May 21 acknowledged that 21 inmates and one employee at its jail had tested positive for the virus, even as the city overall saw a 35% increase in the number of cases.

Yet instead of responding by releasing low-level offenders from what could easily become a literal death trap, Tuscaloosa’s police chief has announced plans to round up and jail more people.              Though crime is down in the city, Chief Brent Blankley – who since his appointment in February has overseen roundups of low-level offenders including 116 misdemeanor arrests – announced  this week about a plan to “take our streets back.”

Among other things, he plans to increase traffic stops by buying tint meters. In Tuscaloosa, the crime of “Improper Window Tint” carries a penalty of $182. It also gives police an excuse to pull people over, often leading to additional financial penalties, vehicle searches, arrest, and incarceration for things such as unpaid traffic tickets or marijuana possession.

Blankley’s plan, dubbed “Operation Safe Streets,” is being rolled out as Tuscaloosa’s streets are stalked by a silent, invisible killer that has disproportionately haunted black lives in Alabama and across the country. Although Alabama’s population is about 27% black, 42% of confirmed cases of Covid-19 are within the black population, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health.

“Operation Safe Streets” also rolls out amid breathtaking reminders that black lives are also disproportionately taken by police and vigilante violence. Tuscaloosa has a history of racially biased  police practices. In 2016, the most recent year for which data is available, black residents were 4.1 times as likely as white residents to be arrested for possession of marijuana. This, in a college town; this, amid robust and longstanding evidence that white and black people use marijuana, and therefore possess it, at roughly the same rates.

In an America on edge – and in some places on fire – in response to the death in police custody of a Minneapolis man named George Floyd who told the police officer whose knee rested on his neck, “I can’t breathe,” Tuscaloosa’s police chief has decided the best use of public resources is tint meters that will in all likelihood be used to pull over, cite, arrest, and incarcerate black bodies in a jail that is riddled with a disease that has disproportionately sickened and killed them.

      Tuscaloosa should think hard about what kind of city it wants to be. Right now, it is the kind of city that brags of a plan to funnel residents with windows it deems too dark into a jail unable to protect them from a deadly pathogen. This plan endangers the lives of the people who are arrested, the police who take them into custody, jail employees, and the families and communities they return to.

Operation Safe Streets will put the people of Tuscaloosa in harm’s way. At a time when safe jails are out of reach, it is unconscionable.

By Carla Crowder, Appleseed Executive Director

Birmingham, Ala. — A little more justice slowly made its way into Alabama this week.

Roberto Cruz, a 71-year-old man who had been sentenced to die in prison for a case involving marijuana – that’s right, only marijuana – was resentenced to time served and will soon be released from Donaldson prison.

Mr. Cruz’s odyssey through the Alabama court system contains so many remarkable elements it’s hard to know where to start. In 2003, he was charged with drug trafficking when the vehicle he was a passenger in was pulled over in Warrior and police found 25 pounds of marijuana in the trunk.  The driver received a 3-year split sentence and was deported.  Mr. Cruz was sentenced to Life Without Parole.

Roberto Cruz was ensnared in a system that has some of the country’s harshest sentences and lowest weight thresholds for marijuana offenses, Jefferson County Judge Stephen Wallace found, when he resentenced Mr. Cruz to time served.

The State’s primary evidence, according to Jefferson County Circuit Judge Stephen Wallace’s order: “[C]ircumstantial evidence suggesting that since the defendant was a passenger in the vehicle and marijuana has a strong odor, then he must have known about the drugs.”

At trial in 2005, Mr. Cruz’s attorney offered no mitigating evidence nor objection to the State’s use of prior convictions from 1985 to enhance his sentence under the Habitual Felony Offender Act. It took almost 16 years for the Alabama justice system to correct this error. Turns out, the State was not permitted to use those old convictions, all of which were drug crimes stemming from a single incident in Georgia.  Well-established Alabama case law excludes drug convictions prior to 1987 for use in HFOA sentencing because drug crimes had their own recidivist statute until then. But no one in Judge Gloria Bahakel’s Jefferson County courtroom 15 years ago could be bothered to point that out.

The story of how this error got corrected speaks volumes about the frailties in Alabama’s justice system and the harm done to defendants without access to money. The Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals affirmed the conviction and sentence.  Incarcerated and without the benefit of counsel, Mr. Cruz filed post-conviction petitions that went nowhere. Then investigators with the Southern Poverty Law Center discovered his case while researching marijuana trafficking cases. They put Mr. Cruz’s plight on the radar of Jefferson County Public Defender Adam Danneman, who vigorously took on the case.

Judge Wallace’s order, most importantly, provides immediate release to a 71-year-old man who has no business at Donaldson prison. But it goes further in pointing out the “disturbing” reality that Alabama is still sending people to prison forever for marijuana, a substance legal in 11 states, and decriminalized in 16 more. “Commercial distribution of cannabis is allowed in all jurisdictions where it has been legalized, except for Vermont and the District of Columbia,” he wrote.  Even in the surrounding southern states of Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee, Alabama’s weight threshold for a trafficking conviction – greater than 2.2 pounds – is way out of line.

“Judge Wallace’s order hits the nail on the head. We have the lowest thresholds and the harshest punishments in the country for marijuana in this state,” Mr. Danneman told me. “Regardless of how you feel about the legalization/decriminalization of weed, 15 plus years in prison is a shockingly harsh punishment. I’m glad we were able to do something about it.”

Appleseed and the Southern Poverty Law Center focused on Alabama’s harsh marijuana laws in our report, Alabama’s War on Marijuana: Accessing the Fiscal and Human Toll of Criminalization. We found that marijuana enforcement costs Alabama taxpayers $22 million per year, a cost worth examining given the enormous state budget shortfalls anticipated by the COVID-related economic downturn and court closures.

The human costs are much worse.

In leaving prison as an older person once sentenced to die there, Mr. Cruz is in good company.  Within the last year, 72-year-old Geneva Cooley and 58-year-old Alvin Kennard have walked free, in large part because of Jefferson County judges and prosecutors who were unafraid to take a second look at how the mistakes of our past are wasting lives and hurting people.  Like Mr. Cruz, Ms. Cooley’s LWOP sentence was for drug trafficking.

Mr. Kennard at his Bessemer home a few months after his release from prison. Photo by Bernard Troncale

Mr. Kennard was my client and I still see him on a regular basis. Within 6 weeks of release, he secured a job at a car dealership. He talks about going to work like it’s the best thing that ever happened to him. Work, family, and church are his priorities.  In fact, Mr. Kennard and Bessemer District Attorney Lynniece Washington attend the same church. And she is fine with that, she once told me. After all, she saw no purpose in opposing Mr. Kennard’s resentencing. He had served 36 years for a $50 robbery.

But there are so many more like them. According to data from the Alabama Sentencing Commission that Judge Wallace included in his order, 22 people in Alabama are serving sentences of Life Without Parole for drug convictions, 255 for robbery – all crimes that require no physical injury for a conviction.  But under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, that does not matter.

More than 100 of these people are over 60 years old. As COVID-19 spreads through the Alabama Department of Corrections, with now 25 confirmed cases among staff and incarcerated people, the potential consequences of these sentencing decisions become more fraught.

We celebrate with Roberto Cruz. And still we search for the ways Alabama’s criminal punishment system will somehow provide justice to the many others like him.

For a full account of Mr. Cruz’s case, please read Kathryn Casteel’s detailed report from the Southern Poverty Law Center.