Criminal justice reform roundup: June 20, 2019 edition

Daniel Nichanian

Follow the latest legislative developments in our interactive tracker.

Alabama sheriffs can no longer personally pocket the funds meant to provide food to people in jail. A new law, sponsored by Republican Senator Arthur Orr and signed by Governor Kay Ivey, ends a rule that incentivized sheriffs to provide subpar meals and then keep leftover money.

Alabama State Capitol (Photo by Julie Bennett/Getty Images)

This longstanding practice drew renewed outrage in 2018, when an AL.com investigation by Conor Sheets revealed that Etowah County Sheriff Todd Entrekin had pocketed $750,000 of jail food funds and bought a $740,000 beach house. Also in 2018, the Alabama Appleseed Center and the Southern Center for Human Rights went on the offensive, demanding that all sheriffs disclose how they use food funds; but many sheriffs refused.
These investigations catalyzed reform efforts. Entrekin lost his re-election bid, and voters opted to bar sheriffs from pocketing food funds in two local referendums held in Cullman and Morgan counties. But this was not prohibited statewide until the adoption of Senate Bill 228. “It’s important to recognize the collaborative effort required to fix a persistent problem in Alabama,” Carla Crowder of the Alabama Appleseed Center and Aaron Littman of the Southern Center for Human Rights wrote in op-ed. “It took civil rights organizations, investigative journalists, and a bad look for any law enforcement official.”
But this law is just one step in the overall effort to transform the practices of Alabama sheriffs. Sheets published a new blockbuster investigation last week alleging misuse of funds, this time in the aftermath of sheriffs losing re-election bids.


In other legislative news:
Alabama: A new law will require prisons and jails to provide menstrual hygiene products at the state or the county’s expense. The U.S. Department of Justice found in a 2014 report about an Alabama women’s prison that prisoners were “compelled to submit to unlawful sexual advances” to “obtain necessities, such as feminine hygiene products.” The state Department of Corrections now insists that it is providing such products, but the bill’s sponsor, Representative Rolanda Hollis, said she has heard otherwise.
Connecticut: Connecticut could have been the first state in the country to make phone calls from prison free. But the legislature adjourned without adopting this bill, despite organizing by the group Worth Rises and a shout-out from Senator Elizabeth Warren, a Democratic presidential candidate. Making a 15-minute call from a Connecticut prison costs $3.65, an expense that piles up and compounds the isolation of incarcerated people. Rachel Cohen reported in The Intercept that the bill was held up by the stonewalling of Democratic Governor Ned Lamont and the lobbying of Securus Technologies, a national prison telecommunications company; Cohen later reported that the proposal eventually failed for reasons unrelated to its content and may return next year.
Oregon: In December, the Sixth Amendment Center released a report funded by the legislature documenting that Oregon’s public defense system violates the U.S. Constitution. How is the legislature responding? By creating a task force to study the issue. Lawmakers gutted a bill that would have expanded the state’s defense system and limited public defenders’ caseload, replacing those provisions with a task force that would last through the end of 2020; advocates warn this could derail any other reform push for years.
Pennsylvania: Governor Tom Wolf imposed a moratorium on executions in 2015, and the state Supreme Court has agreed to hear a challenge to the constitutionality of the death penalty. But for now Pennsylvania is the only state in the Northeast where capital punishment is in the books. Two representatives (Democrat Chris Rabb and Republican Frank Ryan) are now planning a legislative push to abolish it. They have yet to file a bill, but they released a memo that points out that Pennsylvania has exonerated “twice the number of people it has executed in recent decades,” and that “there is a risk of executing an innocent person every time we have an execution.”
Texas: By a large majority, the Republican-run House passed a bill in April to decriminalize the possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, and reduce the penalties associated with possessing less than 2 ounces. But the proposal was then ignored in the Senate, and it is now dead since the legislature has adjourned. Republican Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who controls the Senate agenda, staunchly opposed the bill. Texas did expand medical marijuana: Kyle Jaeger reports in Marijuana Moment that a new law significantly lengthens the list of qualifying medical conditions.