Thursday, March 7, 2013

ReFORM-AL at the AL HB 85 Judiciary Hearing

UPDATE: The substitution HB 85 is now online. Follow the bill here, and be prepared to address the bill to the full House, because it seems this bill may pass.
Now on to the review of the Judiciary Committee Hearing:

First, the videos. You can click here to view the entire hearing playlist via YouTube (curtesy of the Sex Offender Issues blog:

Since YouTube limits videos to 15 minutes, I broke the video into three sections:

Here is my written summary of the Judiciary Committee Hearing:

ReFORM-AL at the House Judiciary Committee
For the past few weeks, ReFORM-AL has been trying to raise awareness of, and stop, Alabama's House Bill 85, the sex offender anti-clustering law. This is the second time this law has been raised in the state legislature, but unlike the previous legislation, two state representatives have expressed a personal reason for passing this legislation. More specifically, state representatives (Ball and Wallace) have stated in media reports their intent to pass the statewide law was to prevent halfway houses from forming in their backyards.

Within a couple of days since the public hearing was requested, a public hearing was indeed scheduled for Wednesday, February 27, 2013, at 1:30 PM. Considering how slow Alabama tends to be, I must admit I was caught off guard by how quickly a public hearing was set. I had barely 48 hours to plan, research, and commutes in order to create a presentation before the House Judiciary Committee. Shiloni Transformation Ministries of Birmingham invited me to be a part of their entourage planning to head to Montgomery to fight HB 85. I graciously accepted the offer, and they paid for a bus ticket to Birmingham so we could plan a strategy.

After arriving in Birmingham five hours behind schedule (no thanks to Greyhound) and getting a mere four hours sleep, I met with Bill Grier, the head of the ministry. Counting myself and Grier, six of us endured the two-hour drive from Birmingham to Montgomery. We honestly did not know what to expect.

We arrived at the Statehouse with plenty of time. There were a number of bills on the docket, but the press was far more interested in a controversial educational bill that was garnering a lot of public attention. The room for the House Judiciary Committee was no larger than average classroom, with the desks for the committee members took up more than half of the room. I set up my video camera and waited for the event to begin. Thankfully, the HB 85 discussion was the first on the docket, so we did not have to wait all afternoon. The room was filled with a number of people, including members of a battered women's shelter called Safeway; however, they did not speak out in favor or against this bill.

The hearing began with testimony from State Representative Wallace, who was one of the sponsors of the bill, but was not on the Judiciary Committee. Accompanying him in support of this bill was CJ Robinson, a county prosecutor from Wallace's house district. Wallace explained his intent with the law was to shut down housing options in his county, particularly those offered by a man named Ricky Martin, who runs a place called Triumph Ministries. Robinson read every catchphrase from the victim industry playbook, from claiming higher recidivism rates to stating if this law saves “just one child” then it is worth it.

I was the first of six individuals speaking out against HB 85. Unlike the proponents of the bill, I was given a mere 2 min. to speak, and to be honest, I don't believe I was even given two full minutes. Since there was no microphone, we were asked to speak loudly. This is never a problem for me. Of course, being forced to speak using my natural voice to amplify my words, and my speech consists of a condemnation of residency restriction laws and a rebuke of the phony statistics offered by the previous speaker, it is no small wonder why the legislature sought to cut me off. Apparently they were not prepared to hear the facts. After the speaker cut me off, and I began returning to my seat, State Representative Givan rebuked the speaker for not allowing me the opportunity to give my presentation and a fair amount of time, given the fact that Wallace and Robinson went well over 2 min. to offer their presentations.

However, despite never working before on any projects in the past, and after only having a couple of conversations with associates of Shiloni Transformation Ministries, we worked very well together. Each individual after me offered aid effort perspective as to why passing HB 85 would be a terrible mistake. Since this ministry was impacted by a countywide anti-clustering law in 2010, which impacted their ability to help register citizens, those who work for the ministry could offer proof of the practical effects of the law, which has resulted in their near collapse. Passing HB 85 would allow the injustices created by the Birmingham/Jefferson County ordinance to become a statewide injustice. One of the graduates of the program offered testimony, along with an attorney with the Southern Center of Human Rights, along with another well-spoken associate of the ministry. Each subsequent testimony supplemented the key points of the previous speakers, and addressed new concerns as they arose.

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this particular committee hearing, besides having a decent amount of supporters at the hearing, was the fact that a couple of the judiciary committee members were openly questioning this bill. One of the committee members made note that the law does not differentiate between the most serious offenders and relatively minor offenses like public urination. Committee members questioned Wallace's personal motive for pushing this legislation. Robinson took even more heat; Robinson had claimed a 90% recidivism rate for sex offenders, yet when asked how many of the 33 registered citizens in the one cluster in his county have committed a new sex crime, Robinson had to admit that number was zero.

After the committee hearing, as I stood out in the hallway, State Rep. Givan apologized to me for the behavior of the committee head, gave me a hug, and thanked me for speaking out. She stated that it is very difficult to reform the deep-seated mentality of the state, though she is trying. I handed her the research papers I brought as evidence for the committee to consider.

After I left the Statehouse, our group paid a visit to the equal justice initiative, another nonprofit legal group that specializes in criminal justice reforms. We talked for over an hour, with the hopes the EJI may be able to help us with possible litigation should this bill pass. They shared a number of very sad stories with us, including one individual who is on the registry, who was arrested and sent back to prison for picking up aluminum cans along the side of a road, which apparently is considered employment, and arrested him for a work restriction violation.

It remains to be seen if the appearance of ReFORM-AL, Shiloni Transformation Ministries, and the Southern Center of Human Rights made any impact on the Judiciary Committee, but in light of seeing such vocal questioning of the bill by members of the judiciary committee, I remain optimistic this bill will not pass. As State Rep. Wallace passed by me after the hearing ended, I told him his law is going down. I keep the faith that it will.

If you are in the mood to educate that misinformed assistant DA from Chilton Co., here is the staff directory. It seems they don't have email or even a fax! :

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