Prompted by a growing crime rate and a federal call for a “war on crime,” the Alabama legislature passed the Habitual Felony Offender Act (HFOA) in 1977. The Act, considered the harshest of its kind second only to Mississippi, mandates life without parole sentences for anyone convicted of a Class A felony with three prior felonies and a life sentence for anyone convicted of a Class B felony with three prior felonies–even where those prior felonies all arose out of the same incident and regardless of the amount of time between the offenses or the severity of those previous offenses.
Considered the harshest of its kind second only to Mississippi
The rigidity of this law led to damaging consequences for convicted individuals, as well as the state of the Alabama Justice System. For many, the HFOA led to unjust and excessive prison sentences. It also unnecessarily increased prison costs for Alabama taxpayers, with lack of oversight and political pushback preventing reform. Such sentencing has affected hundreds of inmates across the state.
Alonzo Miller III was arrested for robbery and assault in 2012. He was sentenced to life in prison without parole solely due to prior felony convictions which had occurred decades earlier even though he had received a pardon for these previous convictions in 2006. When his lawyer filed a motion to challenge the sentence, prosecutors claimed they had no knowledge the pardon ever existed. Miller ultimately proved that the pardon had been granted; however, the pardon had merely restored his political and civil rights but specifically had not relieved Miller from the impact of the HFOA. So the court determined that Miller’s sentence of life without parole could not be changed.
Robert Cheeks, who is 78 years old, has been incarcerated for more than 35 years for a robbery with no physical injury because he had several earlier property crimes.
Arthur Mallory, a 73 year old inmate, has been in jail for over thirty-eight years. He was convicted of robbery after acting as the lookout for the group. He was sentenced under the HFOA because he had three prior forgery felonies and a robbery nearly 50 years ago.
Michael Schumacher received a life without parole sentence in 1985 as a result of robbing a convenience store in which no one was physically injured. The sentence was imposed because of three earlier drug-related convictions. His co-defendant, who did not have three earlier convictions, was sentenced to ten years for the same crime.
Lee Earnest Davis, a 68 year old inmate in Jefferson County who was sentenced to life in prison without parole as the result of a string of robberies in 1979. Davis spends his time in Donaldson Correctional Facility working in the prison laundry and completing Bible studies. In his 36 years of incarceration, he has never received a disciplinary infraction. But despite this obvious rehabilitation, the HFOA prevents Davis from ever being granted parole.
Alonzo Hurth, age 69, was convicted in 1994 for robbery and was sentenced to life in prison without parole due to previous forgery charges. During his 27 years in prison, he has earned his GED, has become an ordained minister, and has worked as a tutor and hospital attendent. Despite his lack of disciplinary infractions, he is likely to die in prison.
For these individuals and many more, the Habitual Felony Offender Act has prevented the criminal justice system from carrying out it’s major duty: rehabilitation. As a result, hundreds of incarcerated Alabamians have been left behind by their justice system.
The disproportionate sentencing for minor crimes under the Act has caused irrevocable harm to our state.
The disproportionate sentencing for minor crimes under the Act has caused irrevocable harm to our state. However, House Bill 107 provides a chance for progress from the draconian nature of HFOA. The bill would repeal the HFOA, preventing its use in new sentences and allowing affected inmates the possibility of resentencing.
Alabama’s criminal justice system is in need of reform, and HB107 provides a much needed step towards change.
ACLU Smart Justice, “Report: Alabama’s Habitual Offender Law” [https://alabamasmartjustice.org/report-alabama-hfoa]
Southern Poverty Law Center, “Habitual Felony Offender Act: Alabama law produces long prison sentences for questionable prior convictions” [https://www.splcenter.org/news/2021/04/09/habitual-felony-offender-act-alabama-law-produces-long-prison-sentences-questionable-prior]
Southern Poverty Law Center, “After a hard-won sentence reduction, Huntsville man’s court debt is another obstacle to freedom” [https://www.splcenter.org/news/2019/11/12/after-hard-won-sentence-reduction-huntsville-mans-court-debt-another-obstacle-freedom]
Ivana Hrynkiw, ” Two men sentenced for drug trafficking and no chance at parole now free” [https://www.al.com/news/birmingham/2020/06/two-men-sentenced-for-drug-trafficking-and-no-chance-at-parole-now-free.html]