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February 2, 2010

Fields takes on criminal sentences, cockfighting

CULLMAN — He may be one of the sophomores in the Alabama House of Representatives, but that isn’t stopping Rep. James Fields (D-Hanceville) from taking the initiative on a number of pieces of legislation — some with controversial implications — in the 2010 session.

One such item is House Bill 270, which Fields hopes will make it through the scrutiny of the house judiciary committee. The bill seeks to present alternative sentencing options for third-time felony offenders, and to revise the mandatory fourth-time penalty for class A felons under certain mitigating circumstances.

“We need to look at how we sentence habitual offenders,” Fields said Monday. “The way it is now, everybody who falls under the current law is being sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. What we’re saying in this bill is that, if that fourth offense is not a crime of a serious nature, then any person who has served a 20-year sentence should be eligible to have their case reviewed by a judge to possibly have the ‘life-without-parole’ portion of their sentencing removed.”

Fields said the bill is likely to see strong opposition from politically-motivated detractors in the house who hope to portray the measure as a retreat from being tough on crime.

“It’s not at all about shying away from punishing the worst offenses,” Fields said. “Remember, these are not crimes of a heinous nature that we’re talking about. There is a certain element of criminal out there who deserves and demands the strongest possible punishment, and I’m all for keeping that intact.”

“What we’re trying to address is getting young men and women who have that fourth conviction, but who have not committed heinous acts, back out into society, and to treat the ‘correctional’ mission of our correctional system with some accountability. This bill will hopefully get to address that.”

Another bill introduced by Fields is a revisitation of the cockfighting issue, which failed to gain traction in last year’s regular session. This year’s effort, House Bill 342, would seek not only make participation in cockfighting as a sporting activity a felony offense, but would also subject spectators to felony charges.

“There needs to be a stiffer penalty, because again, if we’re going to ask our officers to enforce our laws, we need to be serious about it,” Fields said. “Sure, it’s against the law right now, but it’s only a $50 misdemeanor offense. You waste a lot of good law enforcement man-hours and money because of the way it’s set up now. It’s not worth the time and effort for law enforcement.”

Fields’ bill would make cockfighting a class A felony punishable by a $10,000 fine for the first offense. “It’s gonna be an uphill fight,” Fields said. “There is opposition and there’s going to be lobbying from the other side.”

Less polarizing will be an item to afford spouses of deceased state employees the opportunity to continue paying insurance premiums and receiving coverage after the employee’s death. House bill 365, known informally as the “Lea Fite” bill in honor of the district 40 democratic representative who died suddenly last October, should see broad support as it passes through the house government appropriations committee.

“It’s a good bill, and it’s one that will probably end up being named in his honor,” said Fields. “That one won’t have opposition.”

Benjamin Bullard can be reached by e-mail at bbullard@cullmantimes.com or by telephone at 734-2131 ext. 270.

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