Bills tackling fentanyl trafficking and ‘good time’ limits in prisons advance
The Alabama House Thursday passed a bill that would require tougher sentences for those convicted of trafficking the powerful opioid fentanyl. The measure passed without opposition.
“A criminal justice bill like this, increasing penalties, setting mandatory minimums for trafficking fentanyl, that almost always is going to see some kind of resistance from Democrats,” said Todd Stacy, host of Capitol Journal on Alabama Public Television.
Stacy discussed that and other actions in the legislature this week.
Cracking down on fentanyl trafficking
Under the bill sponsored by Republican Rep. Matt Simpson of Daphne, an individual convicted of possession of one to two grams of fentanyl would face a minimum sentence of 3 years and a $50,000 fine. Sentences increase with the amount possessed, topping out with 8 grams or more, which would incur a life sentence and a $750,000 fine.
Fentanyl has been driving a growing number of overdose deaths in Alabama and across the country. As little as 2 milligrams of the substance can be fatal.
Stacy said even Democratic Rep. Chris England of Tuscaloosa, who is a frequent critic of the state’s criminal justice system, did not speak against it. Stacy said England expressed appreciation at how Simpson crafted the bill.
“One reason why the Democrats were keen to go along with this is there’s talk of treatment,” Stacy said. “Now it’s not in the bill. But there’s a big acknowledgement, even among Republicans, that treatment has to be a part of this.”
Funding to boost treatment options could come from the $276 million dollar settlement Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall reached with opioid manufacturers last year.
Reconsidering good time in prisons
Some people incarcerated in Alabama prisons are eligible for “good time,” which can reduce their sentences. Under current rules, certain prisoners can earn up to 75 days of credit for every 30 days of good behavior.
“The whole point is to incentivize good behavior in prison and create a less dangerous environment,” Stacy said.
But the shooting of two Bibb County sheriff’s deputies, one fatally, by a man officials say had his sentence shortened under the good time law even though he escaped from a work-release program in 2019, drew attention to the incentives.
“There were lots of specific issues about this specific case that don’t really even relate to the good time policy, but it led lawmakers, specifically Sen. April Weaver who lives right there, to look into the policy,” Stacy said.
The bill Weaver sponsored would reduce those credits by more than half and require prisoners who escape or committed other offenses to lose all their credits. The Republican’s bill passed the Senate Thursday but not before an amendment from Democratic Sen. Bobby Singleton, which limited how much credits were slashed from the original proposal.
Big budget proposals
On Tuesday, Gov. Kay Ivey released her proposed budgets, which are the largest ever not adjusted for inflation. The education budget is almost $8.8 billion, and the general fund is almost $3 billion.
The law requires a governor to release the budget proposal on the second day of the regular session, but it will be weeks before lawmakers work on the budget in earnest.
“I almost call it the comment period,” Stacy said. “They’re not going to actually take these budgets up in committee probably until late April into May.”
The education spending plan includes increased funding for K-12 schools, higher education and the community college system. More money would go toward the Alabama Literacy Act and Alabama Numeracy Act programs. In the general fund, more money would go to Medicaid because a pandemic increase in federal matching money is ending. Also, the state prison system would receive more funds, primarily because of a new contract to provide health care for prisoners.
“Every agency, every school everywhere is dealing with increased costs so a lot of this budget is going to those increased costs,” Stacy said.
Ivey also proposed an almost $1 billion tax rebate. That would amount to a one-time rebate of $400 for single tax filers and $800 for joint filers.
“I’m starting to hear from rank-and-file lawmakers, ‘Hey, we’re not sure that’s the best way to spend that,” Stacy said.
Closing the health insurance gap
The House Health Committee held a meeting Wednesday about the health insurance coverage gap. That refers to those who make too much money to qualify for Medicaid but not enough to qualify for subsidies under the Affordable Care Act. Advocates say there are about 300,000 Alabamians who fall into this gap and that expanding Medicaid would help them.
But Wednesday’s meeting was billed as an “educational” meeting and not about expanding Medicaid. Lawmakers heard about the people affected by this insurance gap and the consequences they face.
“Most people in politics and government, they’ve worked in an environment where they have health insurance as part of their job,” Stacy said. “This is the person who is serving your food. This might be the person that is taking care of your car. Many times they are working but still can’t afford health insurance.”
Stacy called the meeting “eye opening” for lawmakers. Republican leaders have long been opposed to Medicaid expansion, but Stacy said Republicans seem more willing to work toward the goal of closing the coverage gap, perhaps with more involvement by the private sector.
“I think right now if you had a plan to do it [and] for whatever reason [it] was not called Medicaid expansion … a lot Republicans would support it,” Stacy said. “I think there are some novel ideas being talked about but we’re at the very beginnings of those conversations.”