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The Effects Of Alabama's Habitual Felony Offender Act


Alabama passed its Habitual Felony Offenders Act in the 1970s to crack down on repeat criminals. Now it's threatening to overwhelm the state's troubled prison system, and it's putting people in jail for life.

Beth Shelburne is with the ACLU's campaign for Smart Justice, and she joins me now from member station WBHM in Birmingham. Welcome.

BETH SHELBURNE: Hi. Thank you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You say the story of Henry Willie Simmons illustrates the consequences of this law. Can you tell us about him?

SHELBURNE: Willie Simmons has been in prison for over 30 years for committing a robbery in Enterprise, Ala., when he was in his early 20s. He stole a man's wallet and kind of wrestled him to the ground during the incident. And there was $9 in the wallet. He was arrested a short time later. And because he had three prior felonies on his record, which were all nonviolent, he was sentenced to life without parole, which was mandatory at the time under Alabama's habitual felony offender law.

So he has been serving his sentence in maximum security prisons alongside people that are convicted of the most violent crimes in our system. And in 2014, our state legislature closed the only legal avenue that people like Mr. Simmons have to appeal their sentence. So right now, he and close to 500 other men and women who are serving life without parole for non-homicides are trapped in Alabama's prisons.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Was this law intended to work this way? Was it supposed to get repeat offenders and sort of throw away the key?

SHELBURNE: I think it is working exactly as it was intended. It was targeting repeat offenders with no mercy. And it was passed kind of at the dawn of the tough-on-crime era in the late '70s, before the 1980s, the war on drugs, many states passing three-strikes law. Alabama was way ahead of all of this.

What I have tried to do as a journalist is really answer the question of, what is the lived experience for people that are serving the harshest sentence next to execution, who needed to be held accountable for their crimes and their behavior, yes, but didn't necessarily need to be banished from society until they die.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I imagine, like everywhere else in this country, African Americans and people of color are disproportionately affected by this law.

SHELBURNE: Absolutely. I found that 3 out of 4 people sentenced to life without parole under our habitual offender law are black. That's really incredible when you think about only 27% of the population as a whole in Alabama is black. And the majority of people that fall into this class of prisoners have either mental illness or have some kind of drug conviction among their prior offenses.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: We should remind people that Alabama is already on notice from the Justice Department for deadly prison conditions. Having this population there for so long I'm sure must be exacerbating that.

SHELBURNE: Oh, absolutely. Alabama's prisons are the most violent, the most overcrowded. And the Department of Justice found earlier this year that they are indeed unconstitutional because they fail to keep people that are under their watch safe.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: So what are lawmakers saying to this?

SHELBURNE: At this point, the prisons are in such a crisis that lawmakers have been receptive because we have the federal government here telling us that something has to change or they will take over our prisons, which would be catastrophic, financially, for the state.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's Beth Shelburne with the ACLU.

Thank you very much.

SHELBURNE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.