Mary Anne Rippey: Lawmakers close to passing bill to release violent prisoners

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During each Legislative Session, about 1,000 bills are introduced. Some get a lot of attention, while others pass with little fanfare but with the potential to have significant repercussions.

SB 87, sponsored by state Sen. Trip Pittman (R-Baldwin Co.), sailed through the Senate with very little scrutiny. Then the House General Fund Committee quickly gave the legislation a unanimous favorable report, despite numerous crime victim advocates urging them to slow down.

Now, SB 87 is on the agenda to receive a Floor vote in the House on Tuesday, May 2.

You probably haven’t heard about SB 87. This bill is intended to reduce the amount Alabama spends on older, sick inmates.

Apparently, Medicaid and Medicare dollars are not available for inmates who are in the custody of the Department of Corrections (DOC), and lawmakers would like to shift that expense to the federal government.

In 2008, Alabama passed a Medical Furlough law with a similar goal in mind, but it seems it’s been rarely used, though it’s hard to say how often, as the Medical Furlough reports that DOC is required to file with the Alabama Sentencing Commission have never been submitted in an 8-year period. But we hear that less than a dozen Medical Furloughs occur each year.

The current system by which an inmate gets a Medical Furlough lacks transparency. Basically, the DOC commissioner, another manager, and a doctor verify the inmate’s illness and sign off on his/her release. At one time the District Attorney who prosecuted the case had the opportunity to object, but that option was stripped away in 2015 Prison Reform legislation. Plus, DOC is mandated to notify the crime victim of the offender’s release, if convicted of certain violent offenses, but the victim doesn’t have the opportunity to object to the release either.

Now that you know how this process has worked in the past, let’s address SB 87, which is up for a vote this week. In February, the bill started out as a revision to the existing Medical Furlough law. A few months ago, crime victim advocates were eager to be part of the solution, and we suggested sending these aged/infirmed inmates through the Alabama Parole Board process, which requires an open public meeting, notification of the victim 30 days in advance (for certain violent crimes), as well as notice to the District Attorney, Sheriff, and a few other public officials. Testimony can be heard on both sides, and then the three-member Parole Board makes a decision. It seemed like a better and more transparent process.

I guess Sen. Pittman liked the “Medical Parole” concept too, as he and his team completely rewrote his “Medical Furlough” bill and substituted it in committee — but they didn’t share the legislation or seek input from the crime victims’ community, who have much to offer on this subject and who are significantly affected by the release of violent offenders.

This is probably a good place to point out that more than 75 percent of Alabama inmates are incarcerated for violent offenses, and typically those violent offenders are the ones serving longer sentences. Therefore, the majority of inmates that will be affected by SB 87 are most likely violent offenders.

Who are we prepared to release?

What about Thomas Blanton, the 79-year-old inmate who was convicted of four murders and sentenced to life for bombing a Birmingham church in 1963 and killing four little girls and injuring others. Or shall we release 67-year-old Olin Grimsley, who was sentenced to life for his role in the brutal murder of Ella Foy Riley, a 68-year-old woman stabbed on her kitchen floor in Abbeville by two thugs looking for money (his co-defendant was executed in 2009). What about 62-year-old James Michael Hayes? He is serving a life sentence for the strangulation and murder of 18-year-old Regina Quarles in Tuscaloosa in 1978. He was also found guilty of attempted murder of a second woman, and pleaded guilty to the attempted murder of a third woman. Then in 2012, he was connected to yet a fourth case and indicted of capital murder.

Fortunately, in the House Budget Committee, SB 87 was amended to exclude sex offenders and capital murderers, but many other serious crimes are not excluded. Even California won’t release 82-year-old Charles Manson who’s had 12 chances at parole. Some criminals are simply so reprehensible that they should die in prison.

While this bill isn’t necessarily intended to reduce prison population — medical expenses are the primary concern. Did you know our prison population has declined 10 percent in the past three years and is on a downward trajectory? We’ve gone from about 26,500 to roughly 23,500 inmates (mostly because of the Sentencing Guidelines of 2013), and currently, about 58 percent of the inmates considered for parole are being granted early release. If an inmate is denied parole, it is usually because he/she has not “earned” parole with their behavior in prison, or the crime was so heinous that parole is not yet appropriate, or their home plan (upon release) is not satisfactory.

Ok, now that we have those details out of the way, let’s address some of our concerns about the pending Medical Parole legislation (SB 87):

  • There are three ways to be considered for Medical Parole under SB 87: (1) if the inmate is terminally ill, (2) if he/she is permanently incapacitated, OR (3) if the inmate is at least 55 years old and has a “chronic life-threatening” illness, which could include diabetes, COPD, hypertension, heart disease, hepatitis C, depression, or other infirmities that many Americans live with every day and manage with medication. This definition is entirely too broad; we offered language to narrow it a bit, but at this stage, lawmakers seem to prefer this very liberal definition;
  • We’ve urged lawmakers to be specific about who is “otherwise parole eligible,” as there are currently many ways to be eligible for parole, and violent offenders serving a life sentence can be released after five or six years under certain circumstances. They’ve turned down that suggestion too;
  • We believe an inmate seeking a Medical Parole should be willing to waive their HIPAA privacy protections, so that the victim has a more complete picture of the situation at the parole hearing. If a criminal’s actions put a person in a wheelchair for 20+ years, the victim should know why the shooter is being considered for early release;
  • The bill’s sponsor has indicated that sick/aging prisoners won’t be released without a place to go, yet lawmakers are unwilling to insert the same paragraph used in the Medical Furlough statute (and similar language is used in other states) that says, “No inmate shall be considered for medical parole unless he or she would be Medicaid or Medicare-eligible at the time of release or a member of the inmate’s family agrees in writing to assume financial responsibility for the inmate, including, but not limited to, the medical needs of the inmate;”
  • They refuse to insert a clause used in other states that “No physical or medical condition that existed at the time of sentencing shall provide the basis for medical parole under this act, unless the inmate has become permanently incapacitated or terminally ill after the date of sentencing. In considering an inmate’s eligibility for medical parole, the board shall take into consideration the age of the inmate at the time the crime was committed.”
  • Finally, is it too much to ask to have a parole officer assigned to the inmate to periodically confirm the current location of the aged/infirmed offender, and his or her current medical condition? Lawmakers have also rejected that idea.

Public officials often support legislation such as SB 87 to demonstrate “compassion” toward inmates who are ill and maybe dying. But let’s not neglect to extend some compassion to the innocent victims of violent crime who are often still traumatized 10 and 20 years after a crime.

Again, just to reiterate, our team of victim advocates is NOT opposed to the idea of Medical Parole. But SB 87 definitely needs more work, and we believe that our suggestions are reasonable and offers years of insight by seasoned victims’ advocates.

Lawmakers must be extremely careful how we set up our system for Medical Parole to avoid unintended consequences. Public safety and justice should be priorities while voting on legislation and not just rhetoric when running for election.

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Mary Anne Rippey has been a volunteer crime victims advocate more than 12 years. In 1999, her brother Danny Sledge was stabbed to death by two men who robbed his restaurant in Lauderdale County. One killer is serving a life sentence, while the other has a life-without-parole sentence. Over the years, Mary Anne has helped hundreds of victims by accompanying them to court, attending parole hearings, or advocating for better legislation.

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