Alabama Man Who Spent 36 Years In Jail For Stealing $50.75 Finally Released

From the State of Alabama we get a perfect example of the reason why, at times, the law is an ass.

In a tale that seems like it was lifted straight out of Les Miserables, an Alabama man who spent 36 years in prison after stealing $50.75 from a bakery is finally being freed:

An Alabama man who has spent almost 36 years in prison after stealing $50 will soon be released under new sentencing guidelines that reset the state’s three-strikes law.

Alvin Kennard, 58, had been serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole.

But his sentence was changed to time served by Judge David Carpenter in Jefferson County on Wednesday, meaning he should be out of prison soon.

The state’s Department of Corrections still has to process Kennard out of the system, so he wasn’t immediately released after the ruling. As of Friday morning, he was still listed as an inmate at the William E. Donaldson Correctional Facility, just outside of Bessemer, Alabama.

“We’ve just been praying and trusting in God that this day would come and it’s here, and we’re so grateful to God,” Kennard’s niece Patricia Jones told NBC affiliate WVTM.

Kennard was convicted of robbing a bakery Jan. 24, 1983, in a felony that netted him $50.75, the Birmingham News reported, citing court records.

That bakery crime came after Kennard had previously broken into a vacant service station, leading him to plead guilty to three felony counts of burglary and larceny in 1979. Due to that previous conviction, he was sentenced to life behind bars under the three-strikes provision of Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act.

But in 2013, the Alabama Sentencing Commission adopted new guidelines which, if they had been in place when Kennard robbed the bakery, would have made his previous crime not serious enough to trigger a life sentence without parole, defense lawyers said.

Had these new standards been in place then, Kennard couldn’t have been imprisoned for any more than 20 years, his attorney Carla Crowder said.

He could have been eligible for parole after 10 years.
Kennard told the judge Wednesday that he is still remorseful for his crimes.

“I’m sorry for what I did,” Kennard, dressed in orange-and-white jail garb, said. “I was wrong.”

Based on the articles I’ve read about this case, it appears that the version of the Habitual Offender Act that was in place at the time gave the Judge no discretion in the sentence that was applied upon his conviction in the bakery robbery matter. Because it counted as the final predicate offense for application of the law, it apparently meant that he automatically must be sentenced to life behind bars. This is notwithstanding the fact that none of the offenses he committed could remotely have been considered “violent” offenses and none of the offenses that he was convicted of were considered “Class A” felonies at the time of his conviction.

Obviously, Kennard never should have been in this position. It’s clear that the “three strikes” law that was in effect at the time of his last conviction was far too strict. While the idea of giving a harsher sentence for repeat offenders is a good one as a matter of policy, those laws should be reasonable and allow judges to exercise discretion where appropriate. First of all, it seems clear that non-violent crimes should not be treated the same as violent felonies or misdemeanors for purposes of these laws. In each of the four crimes that Kennard was convicted of over a four years period, no people were in danger, and no guns or other weapons were used in the commission of the criminal act. Additionally, while Kennard had four convictions on his record, those four crimes occurred in the context of just two incidents that occurred when he was a relatedly young adult. Sentencing him to life without parole for these particular acts was, in a word, insane and a fairly good example of how, as Charles Dickens put it in Oliver Twist, the law is an ass.

For someone who has had nearly four decades of his life taken from him, Kennard seems from the reports to be remarkably repentant and not angry about his circumstances. In that respect, he’s probably a better man than I because if this had happened to me I don’t think I could’ve been as charitable. He went into prison in his early 20s and he’s finally going to be released in his late 50s. No matter how long he lives, the prime of his life was unjustly taken from him because of a supremely stupid law. However long he has left on this planet, I hope he’s able to enjoy the freedom he’ll now have. He deserves it.

FILED UNDER: Crime, Law and the Courts, Race and Politics
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. mattbernius says:

    I completely agree Doug. Couple points:

    First of all, it seems clear that non-violent crimes should not be treated the same as violent felonies or misdemeanors for purposes of these laws.

    The thing is that if I understand the state law correctly, everything this he was charged with falls into the category of violent crimes. This is a topic that there’s a lot of debate over — first should violence to property be considered a violent crime. Second there’s a question of dangerousness — i.e. just because no violence is done to a person at the time, there’s a dangerousness to the behavior that could have led to violence if someone was present (this is a discussion I just got into with a bunch of prosecutors).

    I honestly think the violent/non-violent divide does more harm then good in these discussion. As prison and sentencing reform advocates have been saying for quite a while, we have to be willing to also treat “violent” crime sentences differently if we’re going to address mass incarceration issues.

    All that said, there has been a trend since the 1980’s to increase the definition of what counts as “violent” crimes.

    Additionally, while Kennard had four convictions on his record, those four crimes occurred in the context of just two incidents that occurred when he was a relatedly young adult.

    Completely agree about this. While true to the letter of the law, it definitely seems like it violates the spirit of three strikes (i.e. you shouldn’t be able to strike out in two swings).

    it appears that the version of the Habitual Offender Act that was in place at the time gave the Judge no discretion in the sentence that was applied upon his conviction in the bakery robbery matter.

    Yup, that’s the problem with three strike rules and mandatory minimums. Which is one of the reasons why it’s sometimes a good idea to be careful what you wish for when a moral panic starts around a particularly light punishment. While a judge in that specific case might have done something we find morally repellent, solutions that remove judicial discretion can often lead to situations like this one.

  2. Barry says:

    The law is not an *ass; white Republican Alabamans are frankly evil. We look at groups of people committing evil after evil, but we refrain from saying what’s under our nose.

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  3. Kathy says:

    One more problem with mandatory minimums, including “three strikes” laws, is that worse crimes tend to have longer, harsher sentences anyway. Life sentences for relatively minor offenses ought to be struck down as being “cruel and unusual punishment.”

    Related, a look at prison economy.

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  4. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Barry:

    Obviously, Kennard never should have been in this position. It’s clear that the “three strikes” law that was in effect at the time of his last conviction was far too strict.

    Which, as Barry has already noted, I’m confident that the system realized anytime a white middle class man or woman was on trial.

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  5. Barry says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: I think that I agree with you, but you are quoting somebody else.

  6. mattbernius says:

    To folks points, there definitely appears to be race based disparities in the application of 3 strike laws in some states:

    https://crimeandjusticeresearchalliance.org/rsrch/examining-racial-and-ethnic-disparities-in-californias-three-strikes-law/

    This may have less to do with judges and far more to do with prosecutors and charging.

  7. JKB says:

    @Barry: white Republican Alabamans are frankly evil.

    That’s funny since Alabama hadn’t had a Republican governor for more than a century when that law was passed. George Wallace (Democrat) was governor 1971 to Jan 1979, then Fob James (Democrat) until 1983, then George Wallace again until 1987. So I wonder which party signed the legislation into law?

    Alabama was a strongly Democratic state before the Civil War, electing only candidates from the Democratic-Republican and Democratic parties. It had two Republican governors following Reconstruction, but after the Democratic Party re-established control, 112 years passed before voters chose another Republican.

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  8. Jax says:

    @JKB: You mean the same George Wallace who was a pretty famous racist and actually marks the turning point from when Democrats and Republicans switched their racist point of views? The same George Wallace who would be a Republican, today?

    That “talking point” is getting a little old, isn’t it?

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  9. Guarneri says:

    This poor bastard was the victim of emotionally based poor governance and the legislation that arises from it. Mindless jousting over race just contributes to an environment where absolutist results like the law in question tend to occur.

    May he be swiftly released and may he find peace – and a job – in short order.

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  10. Barry says:

    @JKB: “That’s funny since Alabama hadn’t had a Republican governor for more than a century when that law was passed.”

    This is where you pretend to be ignorant of the post-Civil Rights Movement sorting among political parties?

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  11. Jim Brown 32 says:

    Meanwhile people like Paul Manafort and other “white” collar thugs enjoy the fruits of stealing millions, enabling violent dictators and get small punishments in Club Fed after they are septogenarians…..

    I wish as many black boys wanted to be Prosecutors and District Attorneys as want to play profession sports. Alot of this garbage would disappear. I’m encouraged that the younger generations don’t have the same level of obsession with sports and entertaining white people that my generation had.

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  12. @JKB: You are quite correct, at least in terms of the labels.

    But the bottom line is such that the political era (the change started in 1994, but did not come into full fruition until well into the 21st Century) is that the state was governed by conservative Democrats who were not ideologically especially different from current era Republicans.

    But yes, it is overly simplistic, and in some cases incorrect, to blame Reps.

    It would be more accurate to blame to ideological underpinnings of the laws in question (which were decidedly not liberal–but which did get a lot of national Democratic support at the time).

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  13. One thing is for certain: to pretend like in the past Alabama was governed by liberals is cuckoo for cocoa puffs.

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  14. mattbernius says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It would be more accurate to blame to ideological underpinnings of the laws in question (which were decidedly not liberal–but which did get a lot of national Democratic support at the time).

    Kudos for adding the parenthetical there Steven. 3 strike laws were incredibly popular in both Democratic and Republican areas (and even liberal and conservative). A lot of that was due to the panic around the rise in crime in the 70’s and 80’s and the war on drugs (in particular crack).

    @Guarneri:

    Mindless jousting over race just contributes to an environment where absolutist results like the law in question tend to occur.

    What the heck does this even mean? And beyond that race is critically important to discuss when we talk about criminal justice because disparity study after disparity study demonstrates that laws — absolutist or not — are not equally applied in the criminal justice system. Looking at the system from a “color blind” perspective perpetuates structural racism.

    Honestly, the republican vs democrat lens is — to Steven’s point above — far less useful than race.

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  15. mattbernius says:

    @mattbernius:
    Addendum on race — let me also note that in the 80’s many Black communities contained very strong supporters of 3 strike legislation (which were seen as potential solutions for the “Crack epidemic” and fears, spread by academics, that crime was only going to increase in those communities). Unfortunately, these were also the communities who were decimated by the results.

    So need to be careful in trying to associate specific motives for enacting the legislation. We should instead look to the results. And the results have been incredibly bad for communities and individuals and repeatedly proven to have significant (both substantive and statistical) racial disparities in how they are applied.

  16. mattbernius says:

    @Jim Brown 32:

    I wish as many black boys wanted to be Prosecutors and District Attorneys as want to play profession sports. Alot of this garbage would disappear.

    This. 100% this!

    It’s whats leading to positive reform in places like Mecklenburg County, NC (home of Charlotte). And all eyes are on Wesley Bell in Ferguson, MO. That said, those DA’s/Prosecutors need to be tougher than football players because they face incredible headwinds from all the forces who want them (and other progressive prosecutors) to fail.

  17. de stijl says:

    Crack is cocaine. It hits you faster, but effects are the same (personal insight). Biochemically, they are identical.

    It’s like the difference between chewing tobacco and cigarettes.

    Yet, there were sentencing guidelines and laws for decades that differentiated because powder was white and rocks were black.

  18. mattbernius says:

    @de stijl:
    I completely agree with everything you wrote.

    The reality is that in the 80’s crack led to a moral panic that in turn led to really, really bad legislation. That legislation — like most drug legislation — combined with over-policing of communities of color greatly increased the already existing racial disparities within our criminal justice systems.

    It’s also true that, in the midst of said moral panic, a lot of communities of color supported said legislation. This is really well documented.

    My only point is that this doesn’t easily break down as a Republican/Democrat, White/Black issue in terms of who was advocating for what. Though when you take the step back and look at the entire situation, you see clearly how race plays out in what happened…

    BTW, it’s also telling to see how differently the moral panic has been handled around heroin and opioid pain killers — which is perceived as more of a “white” problem. Users have now become victims. Crackheads never got the benefit of that.

  19. de stijl says:

    @mattbernius:

    It’s a continuation from the aughts where rural meth abuse / production was deemed as victimization of vulnerable people experiencing economic and political and personal / family anxiety.

    Of course, those were white meth heads.

    Whites who use and abuse the drug scourge of the day are victims. Blacks and browns are super-predators.

    Remember when bath salts were a thing?

  20. Tyrell says:

    Where are the politicians and organizations? Where has the news media been? Reverend Al? ACLU? NAACP?
    This makes me wonder how many other people are locked away on these kind of minor charges. Locked away and forgotten.
    I have made no secret that I am a law and order person. But I also am against incarceration on these minor, nonviolent crimes. There are other recourses of correction.
    There are people who commit violent crimes and are back out on the streets in weeks.
    Look at this: “California has decriminalized illegal alien crime” Kate Steinle’s killer has conviction tossed out on some technicality. (RT)
    Now that sort of thing is what gets you. He should be locked up and the key thrown away.