Lawmakers break session; Group urges state to resume paroles


Alabama lawmakers on Tuesday adjourned the 2020 legislative session until late April as the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in the state neared 1,000.

A group of law professors and former law enforcement officials also this week sent a letter to the governor, urging Alabama to resume suspended parole hearings because of the risk of overcrowded prisons becoming incubators for the virus.

Lawmakers met briefly in Montgomery in order to approve the break until April 28. People were screened for fevers before entering the Alabama Statehouse and legislators sat spaced apart in the chambers. A few members wore masks covering their mouths and noses.

Senate President Pro Tem Del Marsh said lawmakers will likely pass “bare bones” budgets — without large spending increases or pay raises for teachers and state employees — because of the uncertainty about the impact of the virus on tax collections.

“I don’t mean to be the bearer of bad news, but I think it would be irresponsible with the economic situation and uncertainty we are in to put any increases on either budget,” he said.

Marsh said he hopes a priority will be economic stimulus measures. The Republican Senate leader said he would be open to raising the number of weeks that people can collect unemployment benefits.

Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton told reporters he was concerned about a lack of COVID-19 testing and hospital beds in rural areas of the state amid the pandemic.

“There are a number of communities in my district that do not have a hospital at all,” Singleton said.

The interruption of the 2020 legislative session could put on hold many of the big-ticket policy items that had been before lawmakers this year, including a prison system overhaul, medical marijuana and gambling legislation. By law, the legislators will have to end the session in mid-May.

Total COVID-19 infections in Alabama stood at 982 on Tuesday afternoon, the state Department of Public Health reported. The state said on Tuesday there have been 23 reported deaths of people who died after testing positive for COVID-19. The state has so far confirmed 13 of those as being caused by coronavirus. A Department of Public Health physician reviews the records of reported deaths of COVID-19 patients to determine whether a death should be attributed to the virus.

The Bureau of Pardons and Paroles announced Friday that parole hearings in the state were being canceled until at least mid-April because of the outbreak.

More than two dozen law professors and former law enforcement officials sent a letter Monday to Gov. Kay Ivey urging the state to resume parole hearings and to prioritize the release of elderly or sick prisoners most at risk during this “unprecedented public health crisis.”

“Given existing overcrowding in Alabama prisons, a failure to start releasing prisoners eligible for parole could lead to countless unnecessary illnesses and deaths,” the group, including former U.S. Attorney Joyce Vance, wrote.

The group suggested that hearings could be conducted using appropriate social distancing measures such as video and telephonic participation in the hearings. They also urged the board to prioritize the parole of prisoners age 50 and over and those with compromised immune systems.

A spokeswoman for Ivey said Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn has “assured the governor that the Corrections system will do what is necessary to protect the inmates, correctional officers, other staff and the public.”

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the overwhelming majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.

Republished with the permission of the Associated Press.