The coronavirus pandemic sidelined the Alabama Legislature for almost eight weeks, a disruption that killed bills on prison reform, a lottery, and medical marijuana.
Those proposals and others are on hold until next year or a special session. Some lawmakers say prison reforms are a priority that can’t wait until 2021.
The Department of Justice reported in April 2019 that its investigation of Alabama men’s prisons found violence, drugs, extortion, and mismanagement to a degree that violated the Constitution. The DOJ could file a lawsuit against the state if conditions don’t improve.
A criminal justice policy group appointed by the governor helped develop legislation earlier this year and called for an urgent response. But none of the bills passed during the abbreviated session.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a study group member, said he believes lawmakers can return in a special session and pass reforms that will satisfy the DOJ and a federal court in a lawsuit over prison health care that concerns some of the same issues as the DOJ report — inmate safety, overcrowding and understaffing. But Ward said he does not believe the legislation can wait until the next regular session in 2021.
“I think if we wait another year, I’m not so sure the feds aren’t going to get tired of dealing with us,” Ward said. “You wait another year, they’re going to say, ‘You had opportunities, you just didn’t do it.’”
Sen. Clyde Chambliss, R-Prattville, also member of the criminal justice study group, said a special session was probably needed for the prison reforms.
“I believe that every cloud has a silver lining so hopefully what will happen is that we will be able to come back in a special session and have all attention on that issue,” Chambliss said. “So, I think that actually may help us in the long run. When you’re trying to do that all in a regular session with budgets and everything else there are so many distractions.”
Proposals to make some nonviolent offenders eligible for new sentences, strengthen the Legislature’s oversight of prisons, and place more emphasis on rehabilitation were among the changes proposed in more than a dozen bills.
Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton, D-Greensboro, a member of the criminal justice study group, said the COVID-19 pandemic raised fresh concerns about the need for safer prisons.
“I think it’s going to bring to light a lot of things that we didn’t think about in the regular session,” Singleton said. “So, being in a special session will give us that opportunity to take those bills a little bit further and to also make sure that we’re doing what DOJ wants us to do. For some of those bills, I didn’t think that we were going far enough.”
In addition to the legislation, the Ivey administration is waiting on proposals from private companies to finance, build, and lease three men’s prisons. Two teams of developers are working on proposals, which are due Thursday.
Legislators are not meeting this week and will return Monday for the last day of the regular session. Last week, they met for the first time since mid-March and passed the education and General Fund budgets, a bond issue for school construction projects, and dozens of local bills.
Legislators could use the last day to respond to any changes Ivey proposes for the budgets and to tie up other loose ends.
One bill they can’t consider would have set up a seed-to-sale program for the production and distribution of medical marijuana products. The bill by Sen. Tim Melson, R-Florence, passed the Senate but is not in position for a vote in the House.
Melson said the bill had a chance to pass the House before the pandemic ended those hopes.
“You never know until you call the roll, but yeah, I think it did,” said Melson, a medical researcher and anesthesiologist. He said next year he would introduce the same bill.
“I’ll introduce it exactly as it came out of the Senate so that ought to lessen the debate and concerns of the Senate. There shouldn’t be any changes,” Melson said.
Lawmakers introduce lottery bills every year, and this year was no exception. All four states that border Alabama now have lotteries, with Mississippi the latest. Alabama is one of only five states without a lottery.
This year, Rep. Steve Clouse, R-Ozark, rounded up 70 co-sponsors in the House for his lottery proposal, which would have funded pre-kindergarten and scholarships to colleges and technical schools.
When Ivey announced during her State of the State address in February that she was forming a study group on gambling expansion, Clouse decided to wait a few weeks before introducing his bill, although Clouse said he did not think the lottery issue needed any further study. When the pandemic shut down the session in mid-March, the bill had not been considered by a committee.
Among other legislation that died after the pandemic:
A 3% pay raise for education employees and a 2% raise for state employees.
A bill to give judges more discretion in denying bail to people arrested for certain violent crimes. The legislation was named after college student Aniah Blanchard, who was abducted and killed last year. The man accused in the crimes was out on bail for several violent charges. Blanchard’s parents and step-parents lobbied for the bill.
Bills to improve retirement benefits for some education employees and state employees.
A bill to remove one step in the appeals process for death penalty cases intended to shorten the time it takes for appeals to run their course.
A bill to allow wine makers to ship their products directly to homes.
Bills to prohibit gender change medications and surgeries for minors.
Bills to repeal the requirement for a permit to carry a concealed handgun.
A bill to allow K-12 schools to offer yoga as an elective.
A bill to strengthen the law on public access to public records.
Bills to streamline some of the requirements for absentee voting.