Alabama bill giving judges more power to hold people without bail passes first hurdle

A proposed amendment to the state constitution that would enable Alabama judges to hold more people without bond passed through a House committee hearing Wednesday.

The amendment, sponsored by State Rep. Chip Brown, R-Mobile, in March, went before the House Judiciary Committee and passed within about seven minutes.

It has been seen as popular among lawmakers and recently received overwhelming support from politicians and law enforcement in Mobile.

“We are seeing violent offenders taken to jail released only to reoffend,” said James Barber, the city of Mobile’s executive director of public safety, during a council meeting Apr. 3.

“It goes back to the Alabama Constitution where everyone has a right to pre-trial bail except in capital offenses. When the evidence is sufficient to support a conviction and the likelihood that the person is going to reoffend, we are asking the judges to then hold them without bail so we can have a cooling off period.”

If passed in the current legislative session, it would then put a constitutional amendment on a statewide ballot for consideration by voters in 2020, Brown said.

Currently, Section 16 of the Alabama Constitution of 1901 holds that "all persons shall, before conviction, be bailable by sufficient sureties, except for capital offenses, when the proof is evident or the presumption great; and that excessive bail shall not in any case be required."

The proposed amendment would reformulate that, significantly increasing judges’ discretion: "Every person charged with a crime may be entitled to pretrial bail on reasonable conditions, unless charged with a capital offense or an offense punishable by life without parole or life imprisonment when the proof is evident or the presumption is great. If no conditions of release can reasonably protect the community from risk of physical harm to the accused, the public, or both, ensure the presence of the accused at trial, or ensure the integrity of the judicial process, the accused may be detained without bail. Excessive bail shall not in any case be imposed or required."

During the announcement in Government Plaza on March 18, Mobile District Attorney Ashley Rich, a long-time critic of some bond decisions handed down by Mobile judges, said that she supported the bill “100 percent.”

"We all know there are many defendants who need to be held with no bond that are not charged with capital crimes,” she said. “This will help us and allow us to do that in those type of situations. So we are very, very grateful that we have a member of the house that will introduce this bill for us."

It’s not clear how many more people would be detained pre-trial or exactly how far judges would take the new powers.

While Mobile Sheriff Sam Cochran also supported the bill, the Mobile County Metro Jail is already filled beyond capacity.

The jail is designed to hold 1,189 people and had 1,547 inmates at the end of March.

Cochran said he only expected a handful of the most dangerous pre-trial detainees to remain in the county jail and that he hoped the balance would level out by judges giving more lenient bonds for those accused of non-violent crimes.

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