Here’s a novel idea for Alabama, home to one of the nation’s most overcrowded prison systems: Instead of treating inmates as societal lost causes, treat many of them as reclamation projects who can contribute when they are released.
One step has already been taken. In 2017, a change in Alabama state law restored voting rights to thousands of residents who’d lost the franchise because of previous felony convictions. The rub was the nebulous definition of “moral turpitude,” which, in Alabama’s legal mishmash, could be almost anything. All crimes, though, are not equal.
Clarifying that definition restored voting rights for many Alabamians whose crimes had been lower-level felonies such as drug possession. In one of Alabama’s worst decisions that year, Secretary of State John Merrill’s shameful attitude toward informing these Alabamians of their restored rights -- essentially, he didn’t -- robbed this rare progressive stance in Alabama law of its opportunity to make a bigger splash.
Merrill, who last month was re-elected to another term, famously told reporters in 2017 that he owed former inmates no help. “I’m not going to spend state resources dedicate(ed) to notifying a small percentage of individuals who at some point in the past may have believed for whatever reason they were disenfranchised,” he said.
The result: More than 70 percent of formerly disenfranchised Alabamians surveyed by the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice did not know their voting rights had been restored -- another example of this state’s policies and politicians hurting those they serve.
Nevertheless, a second progressive step is on the horizon. State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is sponsoring a bill for the 2019 legislative session that would make it easier for felons to get jobs when they are released.
Alabama’s tainted 1901 Constitution contains more than 700 restrictions on felons’ workplaces, most of them archaic and overly punitive. Those laws allow Alabama to punish these men and women twice -- once with incarceration, and again with a stunted ability to support themselves once they are free. Ward is absolutely right to seek repeal of these restrictions.
“The whole idea when someone gets out of prison is we want them to pay taxes, we want them to get a job, we want them to be productive citizens and not be a public safety risk,” Ward recently told Birmingham’s ABC 33/40. Laws that keep former felons from holding jobs such as city workers are “stupid. It’s government run amok.”
We consider this a policy change based not on political parties and cemented ideologies, but instead on common sense and human rights. That a Republican state senator is sponsoring this admirable alteration to the Alabama Constitution is proof of how our Legislature can perform when it worries less about party affiliations and more about making equitable laws that push our state forward.