Being recently released from prison is stressful. A newly released inmate must find a place to live, reconnect with family and friends, find transportation, find a job, and adjust to a starkly different reality than the harsh, but orderly life as a ward of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC).
On Tuesday the Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation designed to relieve some of that stress by giving former inmates a grace period before they have to begin paying all of the fines, fees, and court costs resulting from their previous criminal misdeeds.
House Bill 95 is sponsored by State Rep. Jeremy Gray (D-Opelika), dealing with the administration of the courts.
This bill was somewhat controversial in the House so Gray substituted the bill to address members’ concerns on the House floor. The substitute to HB95 encompassed several amendments that were offered in committee and on the floor the last time this bill was brought up for discussion.
Rep. Jim Hill (R-Odenville) is the Chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.
“We went into this in great detail in committee meetings,” Hill said. “This bill started as just a 180-day grace period. There have been a number of changes that you have been open to.
“This does not apply to those in community corrections because if you are in community corrections you are working."
Rep. Mike Jones (R-Andalusia) said, “Your intention is clearly in the right place. One thing I do when I start checking on a bill is to ask people on the ground.”
Gray replied, “This does not include restitution to victims.”
“One problem we need to address is that there is no unified system for fines and fees,” Jones said. “I have been a (municipal) judge since 2008 and I have never jailed anyone for failure to pay. I think it is unconstitutional.”
Jones expressed concerns that a six-month delay in municipal courts getting their fines and fees could make it more difficult for the courts.
“I think this is potentially going to do more harm than good,” Jones said.
Rep. Juandalynn Givan (D) said, “I have concerns about this bill. Are we or are we not addressing the issue of restitution?”
Gray replied, “This is a compromise to get it out of Judy [the House Judiciary Committee]. Different people have different ideas.”
“I don't think it is going to pass the Senate anyway,” Givan said. “This is a very technical bill that affects not only all the people being released but also the local governments.”
Gray explained that the bill excludes payments to crime victims in restitution because members of the House Judiciary Committee insisted that restitution not be delayed by a grace period.
“Just because it comes out of Judy doesn't make it right,” Givan replied. “There are a whole lot of intelligent people in this body who do not sit on Judy. I say that because I am one of them.”
Rep. Ben Robbins (R-Sylacauga) said, “All this bill does is provide people a little bit of a window to get on their feet until they can become a contributing member of society.”
Rep. Will Dismukes (R-Prattville) said, “I support your bill. I have been impacted by this a couple of times.”
Dismukes said that he had a close friend who was released from prison on a sex offender registry which has made it very difficult for him to find work.
Rep. Tashina Morris (D-Montgomery) said, “I want to piggyback on Rep. Dismukes and say great bill. Thanks for thinking of people who need a little more time.”
Rep. Artis "A.J." McCampbell (D-Livingston) said, “This is a great bill and I fully support your bill, but it is just a step toward where we need to go.”
Rep. Tommy Hanes (R) said, “I admire what you are trying to do. I think you are trying to help people.”
Hanes went on to say that the courts need their fee money, and this could negatively affect the courts.
Gray replied, “It will delay it, but not negate it. Are we trying to help people or are we trying to make money off of people?”
Hanes said, “Who are we to allow a certain group of people to say they are not responsible?”.
Rep. Mary Moore (D-Birmingham) said, “It is the restitution that kills them. Even if they get a job and if they have a family, they just can't get over that hump. I think they gutted your bill when they took restitution out. The biggest horse on their back is still there.”
Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur) asked, “Spousal support and child support?”
“That is not included,” Gray said, “They still have to pay that.”
Gray’s floor substitute was adopted on a 68 to 26 vote.
Rep. Steve Clouse (R-Ozark) said, “This bill has merit. It gives them a chance to get on their feet, but I think 90 days is plenty of time to get on their feet.”
Clouse offered an amendment to decrease the grace period from 180 days to 90 days.
Rep. Napoleon Bracy (D-Prichard) said, “We as a state are not doing enough to make these people marketable. A college graduate can graduate and get a six-month grace period before they have to start paying their student loans back and that person is much more marketable than a prisoner. We are creating an additional barrier to people who are trying to do the right thing and contribute to society.”
Rep. Sam Jones (D-Mobile) said, “Those people come home with absolutely no skills other than what they learn from other inmates in prison.”
Clouse said, “A lot of our courts' budget is paid by fines and fees. If they are not paying the fines and fees our courts will be hurt."
The Clouse amendment passes the House 68 to 29.
Rep. Prince Chestnut (D-Selma) offered an amendment that the released prisoner has to report to the clerk of courts in said county.
Rep. Matt Simpson (R-Daphne) said, “Have you talked with the Clerk of Courts to see if they want these people to come in?”
Chestnut replied, “I have not.”
Simpson said, “How do we know what reporting is? There is no clarity. No one reports to the Clerk of Courts. I worry about the blowback, the unintended consequences of saying they have to report.”
The Chestnut floor amendment was passed by a vote of 56 to 40.
HB95 passed the House as substituted and amended on a vote of 63 to 35.
The bill now goes to the Alabama Senate for their consideration. Gray told reporters that he does not yet have a Senator who has agreed to carry his bill in the Senate.
Wednesday will be day eleven of the 2022 Alabama Regular Legislative Session.
To connect with the author of this story, or to comment, email [email protected].