When criminal-justice reform advocates speak of the ills of policies like “three strikes” laws that mandate long prison sentences for even the most minor of crimes for repeat offenders, the story of Alvin Kennard may just come to mind.
Kennard has spent more than half his life in prison, 36 years to be exact, for robbing a bakery of a grand total of $50.75, Newsweek reports. But he’s finally going to get to come home due to a change in sentencing guidelines and an observant judge who took note of how long Kennard, now 58, had been in prison for a relatively minor crime.
Before being resentenced, Kennard thanked the judge. “I’m sorry for what I did... I was wrong,” he said. Kennard added that if released, he would live with family in Bessemer and work in carpentry.
“Thank you, Jesus,” Kennard’s family and friends chanted after the judge’s decision.
Kennard’s release date is uncertain, but it’s to happen after the prison finishes processing him out, according to AL.com.
In 1983, at the age of 22, Kennard was armed — with a penknife — when he committed the bakery caper. One can imagine that the bakery’s workers and/or customers may have been frightened or emotionally traumatized. But did Kennard’s actions merit having to spend the rest of his life in prison?
Under Alabama law at the time, it did.
Kennard’s crime led to a third criminal conviction (four years before, at age 18, he’d pleaded guilty to three counts of burglary related to a break-in at an empty service station). And so, under Alabama’s Habitual Felony Offender Act, a judge was required to sentence Kennard to life in prison with no chance of parole.
The decades passed, and Kennard, as Newsweek explains:
continued serving time in prison until a judge noticed his case and thought it was strange that his sentence was severe for the crime, said his attorney, Carla Crowder, executive director of the Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice.
Crowder cautioned that there were at least 250 cases in the state of inmates serving longer sentences than they would today be charged with, who have not been fortunate enough yet to receive the attention Kennard did when a judge happened to notice his case.
“As incredible as this opportunity is for Mr. Kennard and as happy as we are for him, we know that there are hundreds of similarly situated incarcerated people in the state who don’t have attorneys, who don’t have a voice,” she told ABC. “As this state grapples with the Department of Justice involvement and unconstitutional prisons, I would hope our lawmakers, our courts and our governor would do more to address these injustices.”
Under Alabama’s new sentencing guidelines, Kennard would have faced a maximum 21 years in prison for the same crime. However, as Newsweek notes, while sentencing guidelines have change, there is no requirement for prosecutors and judges to review old cases like Kennard’s.