How Alabama Arise is working to build a brighter future after the pandemic

After a year of darkness, the light at the end of the tunnel is finally in sight. Promising vaccine news offers hope that public health officials can rein in COVID-19 in the coming months. And as our state and nation seek policy solutions to rebuild from the pandemic’s health and economic devastation, Alabama Arise will seek to advance equity and shared prosperity for Alabamians who are marginalized and excluded.

That vital work won’t be fast or easy. In the meantime, the pandemic’s harrowing toll continues to grow. COVID-19 has killed more than 1.5 million people worldwide, including more than 3,900 Alabamians, and sickened tens of millions. It has fueled a deep recession, caused millions of layoffs and left more than 40% of U.S. children living in households struggling to make ends meet. It has stretched hospitals to the breaking point and disrupted education, commerce and social interactions in every community.

The Alabama Legislature will begin its 2021 regular session Feb. 2. As the health and economic tolls of the COVID-19 pandemic continue to mount, Alabama Arise will keep working hard to empower people who live in poverty and to lift up their voices in state policy debates.

COVID-19 has created suffering on a staggering scale. It also has highlighted long-standing economic and racial disparities and underscored the urgency of ending them. A new legislative session and a new presidency will offer new opportunities to right those wrongs in 2021 and beyond.

The federal and state work ahead

The most immediate needs will require federal action. Congress must extend state aid and additional unemployment insurance (UI) benefits before they expire this month. But those extensions should be just a down payment on a more comprehensive response.

Arise will urge further UI benefit increases and more federal relief to help states avoid layoffs and damaging cuts. We also will advocate for emergency rental and mortgage assistance and a 15% boost to food assistance under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). And we’ll support regulatory efforts to lift harmful Medicaid and SNAP barriers created in recent years.

Flyer on Alabama Arise's 2021 issue priorities. For more information, visit https://www.alarise.org/news-releases/alabama-arise-unveils-members-2021-roadmap-for-change.

We’ll also keep working for better state policies when the Legislature returns in February. Our top focus will be Medicaid expansion, which we’ll pursue along with partners in the Cover Alabama Coalition. Expansion would cover more than 340,000 Alabamians with low incomes and ease the financial strain on rural hospitals. It also would attack structural health care disparities that led COVID-19 to take a disproportionate toll on Black Alabamians.

Arise’s work won’t stop there. We’ll support legislation to expand voting rights and ensure broadband internet access for all Alabamians. We’ll seek to increase consumer protections and overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. And we’ll fight to untax groceries once and for all.

Breakthroughs on many of these issues won’t be fast or easy. But together, we’ll emerge from dark times into the light of a brighter, more inclusive future for Alabama.

Join us at Alabama Arise’s 2021 action briefings!

Alabama’s 2021 legislative session begins Feb. 2. It will not proceed as usual given the extraordinary times in which we live. But we still need to be prepared to move our issues forward. This series of briefings will both inform and equip us to act strategically to continue the work for a better Alabama for all.

Please join us at any or all of these sessions! Registration is required, so please register at the link under each description.

Tuesday, January 12, 6 p.m.Legislative advocacy in a pandemic

We will preview what we expect for the coming session, including what will be different. We also will share legislative advocacy tips for this (temporary) new normal. Click here to register for this session.

Tuesday, January 19, 6 p.m.Voting rights

More people are voting than ever before. We will talk about ways to protect and strengthen voting rights in Alabama. Click here to register for this session.

Tuesday, January 26, 6 p.m.Criminal justice and death penalty reform

We will discuss Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system – and how to fix it. Click here to register for this session.

Monday, February 1, 6 p.m.State budget priorities

Budgets are moral documents. Let’s put our money where our values are. Our budget priorities should reflect our commitment to advancing economic and racial justice. Click here to register for this session.

Alabama Arise action briefings flyer

Alabama Arise unveils members’ 2021 roadmap for change

Sentencing reform and universal broadband access are two new goals on Alabama Arise’s 2021 legislative agenda. Members voted for Arise’s issue priorities this week after nearly 300 people attended the organization’s online annual meeting Saturday. The seven issues chosen were:

  • Tax reform, including untaxing groceries and ending the state’s upside-down deduction for federal income taxes, which overwhelmingly benefits rich households.
  • Adequate budgets for human services like education, health care and child care, including Medicaid expansion and extension of pre-K to serve all eligible Alabama children.
  • Criminal justice reform, including repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act and changes to civil asset forfeiture policies.
  • Voting rights, including automatic universal voter registration and removal of barriers to voting rights restoration for disenfranchised Alabamians.
  • Payday and title lending reform to protect consumers from getting trapped in debt.
  • Death penalty reform, including a law to require juries to be unanimous in any decision to impose a death sentence.
  • Universal broadband access to help Alabamians who have low incomes or live in rural areas stay connected to work, school and health care.

“Arise believes in dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians,” Alabama Arise executive director Robyn Hyden said. “And our 2021 issue priorities would break down many of the policy barriers that keep people in poverty. We can and will build a more inclusive future for our state.”

Graphic naming Alabama Arise's 2021 issue priorities

The urgent need for criminal justice reform

Alabama’s criminal justice system is broken and in desperate need of repair. The state’s prisons are violent and dangerously overcrowded. Exorbitant court fines and fees impose heavy burdens on thousands of families every year, taking a disproportionate toll on communities of color and families who are already struggling to make ends meet. And Alabama’s civil asset forfeiture policies let law enforcement seize people’s property even if they aren’t charged with a crime.

Arise will continue to seek needed reforms in those areas in the coming year. The organization also will work for repeal of the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA), the state’s “three-strikes” law. The HFOA is an unjust driver of sentencing disparities and prison overcrowding in Alabama. The law lengthens sentences for a felony conviction after a prior felony conviction, even when the prior offense was nonviolent. Hundreds of people in Alabama are serving life sentences for non-homicide crimes because of the HFOA. Thousands more have had their sentences increased as a result. Repealing the law would reduce prison overcrowding and end some of Alabama’s most abusive sentencing practices.

Universal broadband access would help struggling Alabamians stay connected

The COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the essential role that the internet plays in modern life. Remote work, education, health care and shopping are a reality for millions in our state today. But far too many Alabamians, especially in rural areas, can’t access the high-speed broadband that these services require. These access challenges also reveal a racial disparity: About 10% each of Black and Latino households have no internet subscription, compared to 6% of white households.

Policy solutions can facilitate the investments needed to ensure all Alabamians can stay connected. Lawmakers can help by guaranteeing that all communities have the right to own, operate or deploy their own broadband services. The Legislature also can enact targeted and transparent tax credits to promote broadband for underserved populations.

Town Hall Tuesdays: What we heard from Arise supporters

Listening is often an underdeveloped skill, yet it is critical for mutual understanding and working together for meaningful change. That’s why Arise is committed to listening to our members, to our allies and most importantly, to those directly affected by the work we do together. We depend on what we hear from you to guide our issue work and our strategies.

This year’s COVID-19 pandemic challenged us to be creative in finding ways to listen. Instead of our usual face-to-face meetings around the state, we hosted a series of six statewide online Town Hall Tuesdays. We held events every two weeks, starting in June and ending Sept. 1. We averaged 65 attendees at each session. Here’s some of what we heard from members and supporters:

  • Affirmation for Medicaid expansion, untaxing groceries and other current Arise issues as important for achieving shared prosperity.
  • Empathy for those who were already living in vulnerable circumstances further strained by the pandemic.
  • Concern about ongoing, intentional barriers to voting, especially during the pandemic.
  • Desire to see more resources to meet the needs of our immigrant neighbors.
  • Alarm about payday and title lending and its impact on people’s lives and our communities.
  • Passion and concern about many other issues, including housing; living wages and pay equity; prison and sentencing reform; gun safety; juvenile justice reform; defunding the police; the Census; environmental justice; quality and funding of public education; and food insecurity and nutrition.
  • Willingness to take informed actions to make a difference in the policies that impact people’s lives.
  • Hope that Alabama can be a better place for all our neighbors to live despite systemic issues and ongoing challenges.

Notes from each town hall

Overviews of the town halls are below. Click the title for a PDF of the notes from the breakout sessions at each town hall.

June 23 – Money talks
We examined how to strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet. And we explored ways to fund those services more equitably.

July 7 – Justice for all
We discussed Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system and how to fix it.

July 21 – Getting civic
Discussion focused on protecting voting rights and boosting Census responses during a pandemic.

Aug. 4 – Shared prosperity
We looked at policy solutions to boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation.

Aug. 18 – Feeding our families
We explored ways to increase household food security during and after the recession.

Sept. 1 – Closing the coverage gap
Discussion focused on how everyone can help expand Medicaid to ensure coverage for hundreds of thousands of struggling Alabamians. We also heard about the expansion campaign strategies of the Cover Alabama Coalition, headed by Arise campaign director Jane Adams.

Get in touch and stay in touch with Arise

Remember, we didn’t stop listening because the town halls ended. We want to hear from you, and we encourage you to contact the Arise organizer in your area:

We hope to see you at Arise’s online annual meeting Oct. 3!

Groups urge Dismukes’ resignation, ask Legislature to dismantle white supremacy through policy change

Alabama Arise logo     Alabama NAACP logo    Greater Birmingham Ministries logo

The following is a joint statement from Alabama Arise, the Alabama State Conference of the NAACP and Greater Birmingham Ministries:

Our elected officials and appointed leaders should respect the full dignity, worth and humanity of all people they represent. We urge all political parties and public officials to acknowledge the harm that white supremacy continues to inflict upon Alabama. And we call upon them to dismantle white supremacist structures through intentional policy changes.

The cause of white supremacy permeates our state’s fundamental governing document. When the president of the 1901 constitutional convention, John Knox, was asked why Alabama needed a new constitution, his answer was clear: “to establish white supremacy in this state.”

Any celebration of Nathan Bedford Forrest of the Ku Klux Klan – a white supremacist terrorist organization – is contrary to the values that Alabamians expect from our leaders, elected officials and neighbors. In celebrating Forrest, Rep. Will Dismukes revealed he is unable or unwilling to represent the best interests of his constituents and his state. We condemn his actions in the strongest possible terms. We also understand this is not the first time Dismukes has celebrated the Confederacy or Forrest in such a manner. Therefore, we join with many other individuals and organizations across Alabama in calling for Dismukes to resign immediately.

Racial equity requires action, not just words

Alabama’s need for racial justice and healing reaches far beyond any one individual. All elected officials must take a hard look at both their actions and the impacts of their policy decisions. Most lawmakers claim to support racial equality, but the results of their policy choices often do not match this claim.

Examples of this mismatch are unfortunately common in our state. The 2017 Memorial Preservation Act prevents localities from removing statues that “honor” the Confederacy without paying a steep fine or getting approval from a panel of legislators that to our knowledge has not approved a removal since the law was enacted. Lawmakers’ failure to expand Medicaid leaves a disproportionate share of African Americans without health insurance during a pandemic. And the absence of racial impact data prevents communities and legislators from evaluating the full effects of state policy choices.

The harsh reality of racial disparities in Alabama

While Dismukes dismisses the need for racial reconciliation in today’s society, we cannot remain ignorant of the truth. We all must reckon with these disparities created and maintained by structural policy barriers:

It’s time for more than talk. Denouncing and rejecting white supremacy is only the beginning. Lawmakers also must enact meaningful policy changes to break down institutional barriers to opportunity and justice for all Alabamians.

You’re invited to Arise’s Town Hall Tuesdays!

Arise’s statewide online summer listening sessions are a chance to hear what’s happening on key state policy issues and share your vision for our 2021 policy agenda. Register now to help identify emerging issues and inform our work to build a better Alabama.

We’d love to see you at any or all of these sessions! Registration is required, so please register at the link under each description.

June 23rd, 6 p.m. Money talks

How can we strengthen education, health care, child care and other services that help Alabamians make ends meet? And how can we fund those services more equitably? Click here to register for this session.

July 7th, 6 p.m. Justice for all

We’ll discuss Alabama’s unjust criminal justice system – and how to fix it. Click here to register for this session.

July 21st, 6 p.m. Getting civic

How can we protect voting rights and boost Census responses during a pandemic? Click here to register for this session.

August 4th, 6 p.m. Shared prosperity

Policy solutions can boost opportunity and protect families from economic exploitation. Click here to register for this session.

August 18th, 6 p.m. Feeding our families

How can we increase household food security during and after the recession? Click here to register for this session.

September 1st, 6 p.m. Closing the coverage gap

Join the Cover Alabama Coalition to discuss how you can help expand Medicaid. Click here to register for this session.

Alabama should use federal COVID-19 relief funds to heal and protect communities, Arise and partners write

To members of the Alabama Legislature,

Alabama is struggling. Even after Governor Ivey issued an emergency stay-at-home order, the average number of new coronavirus cases continues to rise. And despite those climbing case numbers, Alabama is moving forward with reopening its economy. To accomplish a successful recovery, residents must have confidence that it is safe to be in public and workers must be able to work in safe environments without fear for their health or the health and safety of their families. We are asking that you support the following recommendations so that Alabama will use the $1.9 billion under the Coronavirus Relief Fund to heal and protect the communities who have and will continue to shoulder the high costs of this crisis.

The Alabama Legislature, in consultation with Governor Ivey, has divided these federal funds into large categories of spending. Governor Ivey now has provided a method by which you and your colleagues may request release of the funds for coronavirus-related expenditures.

We recognize that $1.9 billion is inadequate to address the long-term needs of Alabamians as the present economic crisis continues to unfold. Consequently, you and your colleagues will need to find additional revenue sources to ensure that Alabama’s economy does not weaken further and that its residents are sufficiently protected from future spikes in infections. We look forward to working with you on those longer discussions.

Our recommendations aim to provide support where it is most needed, reflecting the disparate impact of the crisis. Highly educated workers have largely been able to work from home. Low-wage and many essential workers have not. Unemployment rates are highest for workers who have less than a bachelor’s degree and are higher in our Latinx and Black communities. We have also seen the largest gender gap in unemployment, where women experience unemployment at a nearly 3% higher rate than men. Our response to the pandemic and our use of the Coronavirus Relief Funds need to heal this harm, not exacerbate the disparities that already exist.

However the taxpayer-funded payments are distributed, they must be openly accounted with reasonable but sufficient detail. In addition to public reporting of expenditures, the Department of Examiners of Public Accounts must be authorized to audit receipts and expenditures of all agencies within its purview and to request accounting from other CARES Act funding recipients.

Ensuring safe workplaces and families

As Florida and Georgia have shown, merely reopening the economy does not bring back customers or jobs. Both states have seen ongoing unemployment claims at rates higher than other states in the nation. Alabama must ensure that workplaces are safe, that workers’ families are cared for, and that state and local services are ready for people to come back before the more than 500,000 newly unemployed can return to work. These recommendations focus mostly on needs that can be met with the $300 million earmarked for supporting businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations.

Working

Working outside the home brings with it the very real risk that you will become infected. The primary concern of many workers is that they will become infected on the job and, in turn, infect their family.

To make work safe, we must fund testing and contact tracing, provide protective and sanitary equipment, and create new workspaces that minimize the possibility of transmission.

High-risk and essential workplaces, such as poultry plants, warehouses, grocery stores, child care centers, nursing homes and hospitals, require repeated and random testing for workers who do not appear ill, immediate testing of anyone who has symptoms of the novel coronavirus, and contact tracing for employees, their families, and the public who have come in contact with an employee who has tested positive.

Alabama should use a portion of the $300 million earmarked for the support of citizens, businesses, nonprofits, and faith-based organizations directly impacted by the pandemic or providing assistance to those affected to provide:

  • The tests necessary for business and government agencies that have reopened;
  • Contact tracing of positive test results;
  • Personal protective equipment for employees of those business and government agencies; and
  • Increased sanitary stations within essential workplaces.

Alabama also needs to develop or adopt technical assistance on workplace safety detailing how employers test for COVID-19, use PPE, and create safer workspaces.

In exchange for providing these supplies and equipment, Alabama must require businesses to adopt paid sick leave requirements for all employees to protect other employees and the public from transmission of the virus and allow employees to get tested without fear of losing their jobs.

When allocating these funds, Alabama should prioritize supporting minority-owned and woman-owned local businesses and provide small business loans or grants to these businesses to retain employees or make workplaces safer. Minority-owned businesses received fewer Small Business Administration loans under the CARES Act, and because the business owners have less access to credit, they rely on personal funds more than white-owned businesses to finance their work.[1]

In addition, Alabama should follow Congress’ example and provide a one-time tax rebate to low-income households to assist families who are unemployed and underemployed.

Families

One of the largest hurdles for families who are prepared to go to work is finding affordable and safe child care. Approximately one in four working adults has a child under age 18 and in two-thirds of two-parent families with children, both parents work. However, not every family can afford child care. Low-income families who pay for child care spend around 35% of their income on that care. To ensure parents are able to return to work, Alabama needs to provide child care for low-income families. This includes supporting low-income families by making child care affordable and supporting child care centers that are at risk of closing.

Stable families need stable homes. While Governor Ivey’s April 3 proclamation alleviated the immediate threat of eviction and foreclosure, it does not solve the long-term problem for Alabamians unable to pay rent or mortgages now that the emergency order has expired. Many families will not be able to pay the back rent that has accumulated. About a third of low-income and nearly two-thirds of extremely low-income households in Alabama pay more than half of their income on rent and utilities every month. The total cost of rent support needed in Alabama for the duration of this crisis is estimated at a little over $1 billion.[2]

These families and their landlords urgently need rent relief. To meet this significant need, Alabama must:

  • Allocate and leverage Coronavirus Relief Fund money in coordination with other sources of federal and private housing assistance funds; and
  • Provide emergency relief, through homeless and other nonprofit agencies, for families at risk of eviction, foreclosure or loss of utility service.

Other states have already taken this important step. Montana used $50 million of the Coronavirus Relief Funds it received to provide tenant and homeowner relief. The Pennsylvania Legislature reserved $150 million for emergency rental assistance from its federal funding. Likewise, Illinois allocated $396 million of its funds for housing assistance. It reserved $100 million specifically to meet the needs of people in disproportionately impacted areas based on COVID-19 cases and $79 million for counties that did not receive direct allotments from the federal Coronavirus Relief Funds. Alabama needs to take similar steps to protect its families who rent.

These solutions do not address the overwhelming need for more affordable housing in Alabama. To address this long-term goal, Alabama needs to increase its stock of affordable housing by funding the Housing Trust Fund administered by the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs.

As more Alabama families lose jobs or work hours, hunger is growing in the state. In the last week of May, the Census Bureau’s Household Pulse Survey found that over 10% of Alabama households are experiencing food insecurity–a significant increase from the first week of the crisis. Therefore, we must greatly increase our support to Alabama-based food banks that provide emergency food to hungry families.

Improving Alabama’s health

COVID-19 is exposing chronic and deadly inequities in Alabama’s health care system. The virus’s disproportionately high mortality rate for African Americans reflects deep structural barriers to health care, economic opportunity, transportation, and other assets of the common good. These same barriers have impeded the state’s response to the pandemic by limiting the delivery system for mitigation, testing, and treatment in historically underserved communities. In light of these challenges borne of both active exclusion and passive neglect, Alabama’s COVID-19 response should prioritize interventions that explicitly address health disparities.

Allocation of federal COVID-19 relief funds does not occur in a vacuum. These funds will have their biggest impact when they flow through or alongside state programs designed to provide basic protections for all Alabamians. The single biggest action Alabama can take to maximize the impact of current and future federal COVID-19 relief funding on historic health disparities in our state is to expand Medicaid. Lack of health coverage for low-income adults creates an “outsider class,” distancing many of our most vulnerable neighbors from emergency resources that could buffer the pandemic’s toll. We recognize that the state cannot use COVID-19 relief funding for the state share of expansion costs.

Thus far, Alabama has set aside $5 million to support the Department of Health and an additional $250 million to support delivery of health care and related services related to the pandemic. Alabama should use these funds to:

  • Ensure that there is adequate testing for new infections, including funding for testing supplies;
  • Provide contact tracing after new infections are discovered;
  • Supply PPE to areas that have been most impacted by COVID-19; and
  • Strengthen public health surveillance systems to facilitate rapid response to local infection upsurges as economic activity increases.

Adequate testing for the virus is the most urgent tactical need. A primary tool for targeting finite (and admittedly inadequate) resources is accurate information. The state must evaluate the extent and adequacy of testing in each Public Health District in order to prioritize additional resources for underserved districts and facilitate partnerships between local health departments, private testing providers and local community and faith groups to ensure assistance for all who need it.

Another barrier to both testing and treatment is lack of transportation, especially in rural areas. To address this concern, Alabama should appropriate a portion of COVID-19 relief funds to the Public Transportation Trust Fund to mitigate coronavirus-related drops in local agencies’ farebox recovery rates.

Safely reopening state and local services

Reopening our courts

The Alabama Supreme Court has authorized the presiding circuit judge in each circuit to continue court closures until August 15 for all courts within the circuit, including municipal courts, to preserve the safety and welfare of court personnel and the public. We would encourage delaying non-essential hearings for as long as possible, so long as the delays do not affect the rights of litigants.  However, when courts reopen, they will need to take special precautions to protect people with disabilities or with family members who are vulnerable to infection. Funding to courts should require that they develop, and make accessible, a comprehensive reasonable accommodation policy for civil and criminal cases that addresses the individual needs of lawyers, litigants, defendants, and witnesses who cannot physically come to court due to disability.

These accommodations could be as simple as continuances or remote video proceedings for people who have access to technology necessary to participate in the proceedings remotely. If remote proceedings are used, funding should be used to allow for technology that permits video to enhance credibility determinations by fact finders, that allows the introduction and viewing of documentary evidence by remote participants, and that provides access, or education about the requisite technology for participants prior to their hearing.

Alabama also should increase funding to support ADA coordinators within courts that individuals with disabilities can contact in the event that an accommodation is needed.

In addition to delaying court reopenings and taking necessary steps to protect people with disabilities, a portion of the $10 million set aside for court services should fund personal protective equipment for all people required to attend court functions, including court personnel, attorneys, witnesses, victims, and litigants. Additionally, a portion of those same funds should be used to promptly notify individuals with court dates of delays, cancellations, and rescheduled hearings. Not only should these notices be sent to individuals, but as the hours and operating conditions of the courts evolve and change, the court should ensure that the public is aware of current court policies and how people seeking emergency relief may access the courts. These notices should be prominently posted at the courthouse, online, and in any other location likely to inform the public.

Improving state services

The pandemic caused a groundswell of need for services administered by Alabama, including the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), Medicaid, Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, Unemployment Insurance benefits, and subsidized housing programs (which are primarily run at a local level). As more residents need these supports to make it through the pandemic, Alabama should prioritize the $300 million it has set aside for state agencies to increase the numbers of case handlers they employ to respond to the increased demand, provide those workers with resources they need to work from home or with the same testing and PPE that we recommend for all essential workers when they engage with the public, and collectively improve access to their services using mobile technology.

When an individual is going through a crisis or the entire state is in a pandemic, these disparate services need to be accessible in one place with minimal barriers to applying for benefits, receiving important correspondence about deadlines or reporting obligations, and communicating with case workers about the services. Applying and maintaining these services comes at a high opportunity cost to families. Currently, to apply for and communicate about each service takes hours, often at different agencies and with different case workers. That is time that people need to take care of their children, their elderly parents or neighbors, or to look for employment. Improving capacity and access now both responds to the current crisis and inoculates these agencies for future crises.

Voting

In addition to improving access to state services, Alabama must protect our citizens’ health and fundamental  right to vote. A portion of the $300 million set aside for state services should be used to provide absentee ballot applications to every registered voter or, at a minimum, allow every registered voter to request and vote by absentee ballot during the pandemic. In addition, because many voters require or prefer in-person voting, the state must work to improve the safety and accessibility of in-person voting and permit curbside voting. To ensure voters know how to vote safely during the COVID-19 pandemic, Alabama will need to increase its spending to educate voters in coordination with local election officials.

Taking responsibility for people in our custody

Alabama has both a legal and a moral responsibility for the safety and well-being of the people it incarcerates. There are tens of thousands of individuals housed in state prisons, local jails, and ICE detention facilities — all places where it is impossible to practice social distancing. To date, less than 1% of those incarcerated in Alabama’s prisons have been tested for COVID-19.

Governor Ivey with approval from the Legislature has set aside $200 million for the Department of Corrections to help meet Alabama’s moral and legal obligations during this pandemic. We recommend that Alabama prioritize its use of the funds to:

  • Release all incarcerated people who do not pose a threat to public safety, who are pregnant, and people who are at a higher risk if infected with COVID-19;
  • Assist with reentry services to enable successful reintegration for returning persons;
  • Test people in Alabama jails and prisons prior to release and while incarcerated; and
  • Provide PPE, soap, sanitizer, and other supplies necessary to maintain a safe and hygienic environment for the remaining incarcerated people and correctional staff.

The fastest way to reduce the threat of infection in jails and prisons is to test and release as many people as possible to reduce the number of people within the facilities. However, decarceration requires more than releasing someone from jail or prison. We also must prioritize a successful reentry into communities to prevent recidivism. A portion of the funds allocated for the Department of Corrections must go to increasing reentry services to ensure successful and safe transitions into the community. Particularly important to this transition are ensuring that people are tested for the coronavirus before reentering and that they are provided with the housing, employment, and medical services necessary once they are in the community. Some states have reduced their populations by nearly 20%. Alabama must do more.

In addition to expediting reentry and funding reentry services, Alabama needs to ensure that people are not set up to fail with onerous fines and fees used to fund the criminal justice system and reentry monitoring. Unemployment is already at record highs, and we know that the effects of racial bias in the hiring process increase the already negative effects of criminal records for people of color. Studies have shown that Black applicants with a criminal record had only a 5% chance of receiving a call back, less than one-third of white applicants with a criminal record. Reentering into this economy will be tough. Having paid for reentry with federal funds, Alabama should waive the fines and fees for people who are struggling to reintegrate into our communities, giving them a clean start and a better chance for success.

Even with fewer people in facilities, we will still need to dramatically increase testing of employees who work in prisons and jails and for the people who are incarcerated therein. Only four in every 100 residents in Alabama have been tested for COVID-19. Alabama has tested fewer than 1% of people incarcerated in its prisons. This is wholly inadequate to slow, let alone stop, the spread of COVID-19 within Alabama’s facilities.

Securing our children’s futures

The pandemic radically impacted education and threatens to worsen future education outcomes in Alabama for the many students who already did not have the benefit of an equitable opportunity to learn before it began. Alabama must focus its attention on addressing the inequities exacerbated by access to technology, space to learn, and caretakers to support their learning and those for whom specialized services are not available, including for students with disabilities. If it does not, the opportunity gap will widen with significant economic impacts for students and their families far into the future.

The opportunity gap experienced by low-income children and children of color begins early in life. We must intervene and use a portion of the dedicated $300 million for expenditures related to technology and infrastructure for remote instruction and learning to provide support to organizations offering early intervention programs for at-risk children so that these services can be provided safely and, as necessary, remotely.

Alabama also should prioritize the use of the $300 million to fund public schools with the highest proportion of students who are low-income children, children of color, children with disabilities, English-language learner children, children in immigrant families, children in foster care, migrant children, children experiencing homelessness, LGBTQ children, and children in the juvenile justice system. Public schools likely will need to hire additional staff, including counselors, to provide necessary education, social and emotional, and health and safety services and increase salaries to remain competitive for educators who now take greater risks to their own health and are required to master more technological skills to teach their kids.

We recognize that the $300 million allocated by the Legislature will not be enough. Additional funding could also be taken from the $250 million fund for local government expenditures directly related to the pandemic to provide these disproportionately affected school systems and their local communities with funding for after-school, summer school, and community programs for youth.

Finally, where there are competing priorities for funding, the Legislature has set aside an additional $118 million that can be used to supplement the funds required for these recommendations. If you have any questions or concerns about any of these recommendations, please contact Robyn Hyden (Robyn@alarise.org or 334-832-9060) or Katie Glenn (katie.glenn@splcenter.org or 334-531-7638).

Signatories

Sincerely,

90 Alabama organizations

ACLU of Alabama
Adelante Alabama Worker Center
AIDS Alabama
AL CURE
Alabama Appleseed
Alabama Arise
Alabama Black Women’s Roundtable
Alabama Civic Engagement Coalition
Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice
Alabama Coalition on Black Civic Participation
Alabama Faith Council
Alabama Institute for Social Justice
Alabama Justice Initiative
Alabama NAACP
Alabama Poor People’s Campaign
Alabama Rivers Alliance
Alabama Solutions, A Grassroots Movement
Alabama Youth and College NAACP
Amalgamated Transit Union Local 770
Auburn Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
Baptist Church of the Covenant
Bay Area Women Coalition, Inc.
Beloved Community Church
Birmingham AIDS Outreach (BAO)
Children First Foundation, Inc.
Christian Church in Alabama-Northwest Florida
Christian Methodist Episcopal Church
Church of the Reconciler, UMC (Birmingham)
Church Women United Montgomery
Citizens’ Climate Lobby – Baldwin County, Alabama Chapter
Collaborative Solutions, Inc.
Etowah Visitation Project
Fairhope Unitarian Fellowship
Faith and Works Statewide Civic Engagement Collective
Faith in Action Alabama
Fall Injury Prevention And Rehabilitation Center
First Christian Church – Disciples of Christ (Montgomery)
First Congregational Church, UCC (Birmingham)
Five Horizons Health Services
GASP
Greater Birmingham Ministries
Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama
Holiday Transitional Center
Holy Rosary Catholic Church
Human Rights Campaign Alabama
Humanists of North Alabama
Immanuel Presbyterian Church, PCUSA (Montgomery)
Interfaith Montgomery
Jesuit Social Research Institute
Jobs to Move America
Just Faith, Prince of Peace Catholic Church (Birmingham)
Just Faith, Our Lady of the Valley Catholic Church (Birmingham)
League of Women Voters of Alabama
Low Income Housing Coalition of Alabama
Macedonia Missionary Baptist Church (Daphne)
March of Dimes
Mary’s House Catholic Worker
Medical Advocacy & Outreach
Mission Possible Community Services, Inc.
Monte Sano United Methodist Church
Montevallo Progressive Alliance
Montgomery Pride United
National Action Network – Birmingham Chapter
National Lawyers Guild
National MS Society
Nightingale Clinic
North Alabama Conference United Methodist Women
North Alabama Peace Network
Open Table United Church of Christ
People First of Alabama
Planned Parenthood Southeast
Progressive Women of Northeast Alabama
Project Hope to Abolish the Death Penalty
Restorative Strategies, LLC
Saint Junia United Methodist Church
Shelby Roden, Attorneys at Law
Sierra Club, Alabama Chapter
Sisters of Mercy Alabama
Sisters of Mercy of the Americas
Southern AIDS Coalition
SPLC Action Fund
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (Birmingham)
The Empowerment Alliance
The Green Kitchen
The Right Place, Inc.
The Women’s Fund of Greater Birmingham
Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Mobile
URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity
Yellowhammer Fund
Youth Towers
YWCA Central Alabama

cc: Governor Kay Ivey and policy staff

[1] The SBA Inspector General found that the SBA failed to instruct lenders to prioritize underserved and rural markets [found at https://www.sba.gov/sites/default/files/2020-05/SBA_OIG_Report_20-14_508.pdf on May 27, 2020]. Disparities in lending between minority-owned and white businesses already existed as documented by the Federal Reserve Bank of Atlanta’s December 2019 Small Business Credit Survey [found at https://www.fedsmallbusiness.org/medialibrary/fedsmallbusiness/files/2019/20191211-ced-minority-owned-firms-report.pdf on May 27, 2020].

[2] Estimate from the National Low Income Housing Coalition.

Alabama must tear down the legacies of slavery and segregation

The monument stood in Birmingham for decades as a twisted tribute to Alabama’s original sins: slavery and white supremacy. It “honored” a violent rebellion that sought to protect the enslavement of human beings. During segregation and Jim Crow and civil rights protests and into the 21st century, it served as a daily 52-foot-tall reminder of the systemic oppression and persecution of Black Alabamians.

That monument is finally gone now. After protests, the city pulled it down June 1, on a state holiday named for the political leader of the rebellion it commemorated. Removing physical symbols of slavery and segregation is an important step toward healing and recovery, but it’s not enough. We also must tear down prejudices, disparities and injustices that trace their roots to these oppressive and racist practices. To do that, Alabama must enact public policies that undermine white supremacy and promote dignity, equity and justice for everyone.

The need for racial justice

For more than 30 years, Alabama Arise has worked to make life better for struggling Alabamians through better public policy. It’s impossible to do that work effectively without acknowledging and challenging our state’s historical and ongoing racial inequities. There can be no economic or social justice without racial justice. And as scholar Ibram X. Kendi said, policy cannot be merely non-racist; it must be anti-racist. That’s why we’re committed to placing racial equity and inclusion at the core of our work.

Black Alabamians have battled generation after generation of discriminatory barriers to education, jobs, housing and voting. Compounding those barriers is a criminal justice system that polices Black people more heavily, arrests them more often and condemns them to harsher sentences in dangerously overcrowded prisons and jails.

For centuries, Black people have suffered from police brutality and unequal treatment from law enforcement. This history has fueled protests across the country and around the world over the last week. Arise stands in solidarity with calls to stop killing Black people and start building a world that’s safe for everyone.

All of these systemic failures have added together to produce a series of terrible, ongoing disparities. Black people in our state face higher rates of poverty and hunger, lower life expectancies and lower rates of employment and health insurance coverage.

Policy changes to break down harmful barriers

These are institutional failures that require policy solutions. Here a few ways lawmakers can help break down barriers to opportunity and justice:

  • Expand Medicaid to cover adults with low incomes. Expansion would ensure health coverage for more than 340,000 Alabamians who are uninsured or barely paying for insurance they can’t really afford. It also would attack a fundamental injustice: People of color make up about 34% of our state’s population, but nearly half of all uninsured Alabamians with low incomes are people of color. Lack of affordable health coverage deprives Black people of timely care for cancer, diabetes, heart disease and other serious conditions. As the disproportionately high share of coronavirus deaths among Black Alabamians shows, health care access is literally a matter of life or death.
  • Invest more in public education. Alabama’s state funding for K-12 and higher education, adjusted for inflation, is lower today than it was in 2008. This chronic underfunding hits many schools that primarily serve Black students especially hard.
  • Equitably distribute funding for affordable housing and public transportation. Alabama has trust funds for both but hasn’t funded them yet. Lawmakers should fund public transportation to help everyone get to work, school and other places they need to go. Alabama should support the Housing Trust Fund to ensure people living in deep poverty have safe shelter. Our state also should commit to eliminating redlining, fighting housing discrimination and proactively reducing residential segregation.
  • Overhaul the criminal justice system and the death penalty. Areas with large Black populations often see a larger police presence. The weight of harsh sentences and criminal justice debt falls more heavily on these Alabamians as a result. Lawmakers should reform sentencing laws and ease the crushing burden of exorbitant fines and fees. They also need to end abuses of civil asset forfeiture and eliminate racial injustice in the state’s death penalty system.
  • Strengthen and expand voting rights. Voting barriers should find no home in the heart of the Civil Rights Movement. Automatic voter registration, no-excuse absentee voting and same-day registration are a few changes that would make voting more accessible. Alabama also should ease barriers to voting rights restoration.
  • Raise the minimum wage and restore home rule to localities. Alabama is one of only five states with no minimum wage law. Birmingham tried to raise its minimum wage in 2016, but state lawmakers blocked that effort. The Legislature has that power due to the 1901 state constitution, whose authors explicitly said the document aimed to “establish white supremacy in this state.” Alabama should lift constitutional barriers to home rule and allow local governments to make decisions in their own communities.

A better, more inclusive future for Alabama

Undoing the legacies of slavery and segregation in Alabama will require more than reassuring words and vague platitudes. It will require substantive policy changes to break down centuries-old barriers and ensure all Alabamians have a chance to reach their full potential.

Many of these changes – and others not mentioned above – won’t be easy. Some of them may not happen quickly. But we must keep advocating and working toward the day when they will. The road to dignity, equity and justice for all Alabamians remains a long one. But walking together and working together, we can and will reach that destination.

Targeted releases should be part of Alabama corrections system’s response to COVID-19 pandemic

State and local governments are responding in a variety of ways to the emergent coronavirus pandemic in Alabama. But that response thus far has fallen short where incarcerated people are concerned.

The Alabama Department of Corrections (DOC) has more than 27,500 people in custody right now. (For context, that’s more people than live in Anniston, Homewood or Northport.) Thousands more sit in county and municipal jails. And the conditions in which most of them live are wretched.

Alabama’s correctional institutions are extremely understaffed and dangerously overcrowded. And even after the U.S. Department of Justice warned the state last year about the system’s shortcomings, some of those problems are getting worse.

Quick, targeted releases would lessen harm and save lives

Temporarily halting visitation, as the DOC is doing, is one step to slowing the spread of infections in Alabama’s corrections system. But reducing the overcrowding in jails and prisons is also vital to limiting COVID-19 deaths. Here are a few ways state and local officials could do that:

  • The DOC should expand medical furlough for prisoners. Jails also should release nonviolent offenders. Medical furlough allows prisoners with medical conditions, including diseases that result from aging, to be released to treat those diseases.
  • Officials should allow high-risk incarcerated seniors to go home to the greatest extent reasonable under the law. That would reduce the danger of infection and make a pandemic more manageable in prisons. People over age 60 and people with some ailments correlated with aging, like cardiovascular disease, are at greater risk of serious illness if infected.
  • Local jails should keep their cells as empty as possible. All incarcerated people with no history of violence and no charges pending for violent crimes should be released without requiring money bail. And people arrested for nonviolent crimes should be released on their own recognizance or with reasonable monitoring conditions. Slowing the coronavirus outbreak is more important than keeping people who aren’t accused of violent crimes locked up. Circuit Judge Ben Fuller’s order last week for jails in Autauga, Chilton and Elmore counties to release anyone with a bond of $5,000 or less was a good step in that direction.

Weak, slow responses would mean worse outbreaks and more deaths

The COVID-19 pandemic layers a public health crisis on top of the state’s prison crisis. And the DOC’s response so far has unfortunately been too timid to stop the rapid spread of the virus if it reaches prisons. Many city and county jails also haven’t laid out detailed policies to address COVID-19.

The DOC has issued a perfunctory statement that it is following CDC recommendations. But the CDC recommendations aren’t focused on jails or prisons. And they don’t address inmate holding practices or recommend circumstances for release. The DOC is attempting to reduce the number of person-to-person contacts by stopping work release and suspending in-person legal visits. But these steps alone are unlikely to do enough to protect people who are in custody or who work at the facilities.

Alabama is running short on time to get this response right. An employee at an unnamed state prison already has tested positive for COVID-19, the DOC announced last week. A widespread outbreak could tear quickly through Alabama’s overcrowded prisons and jails, jeopardizing hundreds or thousands of lives. State and local leaders must take quick, meaningful action right now to reduce the risk of that nightmarish scenario.

Arise legislative recap: March 6, 2020

Arise’s Jim Carnes discusses how the coronavirus outbreak and the closure of Pickens County Medical Center showcase Alabama’s need for Medicaid expansion. Also, in the wake of the recent execution of Nathaniel Woods, Jim talks about HB 359, which would forbid the death penalty in capital cases where the jury does not agree unanimously to impose it.