This story was written by ELIZABETH WILLIAMS, The Auburn Plainsman
Following the May 27-31 special session, Gov. Bob Riley approved a bill that grants non-capital felony offenders medical furlough to end their days outside of prison.
The Alabama Medical Furlough Act (HB 47) allows inmates who are terminally ill, permanently and irreversibly incapacitated or 55 years or older with a chronic, life-threatening illness related to aging, to be furloughed upon the approval of the state commissioner.
Inmates convicted of capital murder or sex crimes, however, are excluded from consideration for furlough.
Both a prison physician and an outside doctor must confirm the inmates furlough, which can be revoked if their medical condition changes.
The bill will save the state prison system approximately $8 million a year. Federally-funded Medicaid and Medicare will pay for released prisoners medical expenses, instead of the state.
The governor believes it to be a positive, responsible bill, said Todd Stacy, deputy press secretary for the governor. The corrections department can use every bit they can get.
While the bill had enough support to pass, 35 legislators, including Lee County Rep. Mike Hubbard, R-District 79, were opposed.
I like the concept of what they were trying to do, Hubbard said, but we were not comfortable with the language used.
Hubbard is concerned the bill allows those convicted of non-capital offenses, such as other classes of murder, to be released. Hubbard feels giving furlough to someone who took a life could pose a threat to society.
Rep. Bill Beasley, D-District 84, attempted to amend the bill, but was unsuccessful.
Beasleys complaints are similar to those of Hubbard. First, Beasley wants to ensure that murderers of any cause will not qualify for furlough.
Second, Beasley believes the bill gives the corrections commissioner too much authority.
There should be a panel including a victims rights representative, the attorney general, the appropriate district attorney from the offenders district and the county commissioner, Beasley said.
Miriam Shehane, executive director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, was likewise outspoken in her criticism of the bill. Shehane claims the bill is unnecessary, in that parole officers already have the authority to furlough certain inmates.
The bill is so vague that it could easily be abused, Shehane said. The very fact that the commissioner is the sole determinant of the inmates release is very scary. There is no input from the victim.
Shehane anticipates an amendment in the next legislative session.
Richard Allen, Commissioner for the Alabama Department of Corrections, sympathized with victims, but said the bill has not only financial advantages, but also a humanitarian component.
Since no one came to speak against it in committee, no one should have been surprised by the bill, Allen said. The bill is very specific in describing who is eligible for furlough. Many of the inmates are suffering from dementia or Alzheimers and dont even know they are in jail.
Allen said he believes two doctors opinions are sufficient to furlough inmates, and creating a review panel would only slow down the process.
While Allen acknowledged that many crime victims families do not want the convicted to end their days outside prison, he doesnt agree with the revenge of refusing a dying prisoner medical furlough.
We need to be compassionate, Allen said. These prisoners are still people.