There is a lot of conversation about Alabama’s habitual offender law going on these days, but the more these conversations play out, the more apparent it becomes that the current solutions aren’t capable of solving a problem of this magnitude. Simply stated and true to its “street name,” this law is a bitch.
One of the problems that individuals sentenced under this law have with current conversations is the “violent v. non-violent” dichotomy. But not for the reasons they one might think. For example, one recent report went to great lengths to distinguish between those who are sentenced as habitual offenders but who “never hurt anyone.” This myopic view misses several important points. Here are a few:
1. Some people who have caused injury and were sentenced as a violence offender are “first-time violent offenders.” Meaning, they don’t have any prior felony offense or history of violence where they have ever hurt anyone.
2. Some people who were sentenced as a habitual offender for a violent offense where there was physical injury are first-time violent offenders have already served 20, 30, 40 , 50 years or more in prison. That’s enough time. But if the “violent v. non-violent” debate rages on, these individuals will be left to die in prison, regardless of their circumstance. Basically, we have so-called advocates and other professionals calling for the genocide of these people in the most inhumane prison system in America.
3. Alabama judges and prosecutors have used this habitual offender law in a racially discriminatory manner. Seventy-three percent of all people who received a sentence of Life Without Parole under this law are Black. Why would anyone try to defend a law that has been used to oppress Black people on a fictitious “violent v. non-violent” ground when that’s not the only basis that this was enforced on? We can’t gloss over or try to justify systemic racism. If the empirical data shows that this law has been applied in a racially discriminatory manner, then the law should be abolished or repealed. Clearly, the “bitch” law has done more harm than good.
4. Most of the crimes used as enhancers are property offenses, drug offenses, or other crimes without physical injury or a weapon involved. Others are years and decades old, many derived from out-of-state, while others are simply inconsequential crimes like credit card and check fraud. We also know that these laws were passed in the “war on drugs” era at a time when police and prosecutors were incentivized to target Black communities.
When people try to debate these laws and frame the discussion along the lines of “violent v. non-violent”, we should be alerted to the fact that these talking heads are attempting to justify systemic racism. These people are complicit in maintaining systemic and institutional racism. If you are paying attention, you’ve probably already noted that EVERY single platform in Alabama where you hear these conversations, they are either being lead by white people or its a white-only monologue just like the 1994 Crime Bill signing ceremony.
We are fighting against a system that has many interlocking parts. Some who you might think of as an ally is probably sent by those you know as your enemy. The habitual offender law needs to be abolished or repealed in its entirety. If you aren’t hearing that, then you are listening to an enemy not a friend.
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