MOBILE, Ala. (WALA) – A bill making its way through the Alabama Legislature would add more people to already-crowded jails.
But how many more is hard to determine.
So-called Aniah’s Law, sponsored by state Rep. Chip Brown (R-Mobile), would allow judges to deny bail to anyone charged with a Class A felony; currently only people charged with capital murder are not entitled to bail.
The bill cleared its first legislative hurdle this week. Brown sponsored similar legislation last year that failed to pass. But the well-publicized kidnapping and killing of college student Aniah Blanchard has given the effort new momentum.
Determining how many people might be affected is difficult. In 2017, the most recent years for which statistics are available, Alabama law enforcement agencies recorded more than 6,000 murders, robberies and rapes. But not all of those would qualify. First-degree robbery is a Class A felony, for instance, but second-degree robbery is not.
Statistics provided by the Mobile County Sheriff’s Office shows that Mobile County Metro Jail has booked 534 people since the beginning of last year on Class A felony charges. Of those, 329 have been released. But that includes prisoners who have been convicted and transferred to state prisons. Officials could not immediately say how many of them are free on bail.
Every additional defendant who is not eligible for bail is one more prisoner that jailers have to find space for. And in many counties, that is no easy task.
Mobile County Sheriff Sam Cochran said his jail has been averaging between 1,575 and 1,600 inmates on a typical day. That is well above the designed capacity of 1,361.
“We’ve had to, you know, make use of additional space,” he told FOX10 News. “And we actually sleep inmates on the floor in these portable – they’re referred to as boats – which are little mattresses that lay out on open space floor.”
But Cochran said Mobile County Metro Jail has had as many as 1,800 inmates in the past. Notwithstanding the strain on the jail, he said he supports efforts to keep dangerous criminals off the streets. He pointed to the shooting death earlier this month of a 19-year-man. Officials say the brothers charged with murder, Dentzes and Warren Burrell, both were out on bond on robbery and burglary charges.
“Well, we feel like it’s something that’s necessary. I mean, I think it comes with the territory,” he said. “It’s our obligation to house dangerous criminals in our jail, and so, you know, we’re gonna do it the best way we know how. And if it means expanding the jails, I think ultimately that’s what we would have to do.”
Cochran suggested the overall impact might be smaller than at first blush. Although a relatively large number of people theoretically could be denied bail, he noted that judges would retain discretion under the bill.
The sheriff speculated that judges in rural counties would be more likely to use that discretion to keep people locked up. Judges in large metro counties who see a lot of violent crime may be more reluctant to deny bail widely.
“I think it will help in a few cases,” he said. “But at the end of the day, the judges even now have the ability to make a determination of somebody that really a threat to the community, to set such a high bond that the majority would never be able to get out, rather than holding them without bond.”