Now 58, Alvin Kennard is finally free after a judge ordered his release from the Donaldson correctional facility in Bessemer.
36 years ago, then 22; Kennard was sentenced to life without parole after stealing $50.75 from a bakery. The Alabama native was convicted of first-degree robbery following the bakery incident and was first imprisoned in 1983.
You might wonder why $50.75 could lead to so many years behind bars. The Guardian reports that Alvin Kennard was given the disproportionately harsh sentence under Alabama’s old Habitual Felony Offender Act, also known as the “three strikes law”. He had previously been sentenced to three years probation for three counts of second-degree burglary in 1979. His prior history consisted of being charged in connection with a break-in at an unoccupied gas station when he was 18, which landed him on probation for three years, AL.com reported.
Kennard and another man walked into the Highlands Bakery in Bessemer, Ala., wielding a knife, and emptied the cash register, according to court records. In 1984, Kennard was convicted of first-degree robbery. Because he had pleaded guilty to three felony counts in the gas station break-in, the penalty was a mandatory life sentence.
Emotional friends and family leapt up and raised their arms in celebration in the court on Wednesday as circuit judge David Carpenter re-sentenced him to time served.
Kennard, who previously worked in carpentry and construction, reportedly told the judge he wants to work as a carpenter. He attended court shackled and wearing a red-and-white striped prison uniform.
The courtroom was full of Alvin’s family who wept with joy when the Judge announced his decision. Here they are outside court. pic.twitter.com/1BeiELdILf— Beth Shelburne (@bshelburne) August 28, 2019
Kennard’s attorney, Carla Crowder, who was appointed to Kennard’s case after it was spotted by a compassionate judge, said there are “hundreds” of prisoners in similar situations still imprisoned because they do not have attorneys. “It’s incredibly unfair and unjust the hundreds of people in Alabama serving life without parole for nonviolent, non-homicide crimes,” she added.
Kennard was incarcerated in Bessemer, where his family lives, so for more than three decades, they were able to visit him regularly. His niece, Patricia Jones told WIAT that she had seen firsthand how prison made him a different person. After a few years behind bars, “he started talking about God and I knew he had changed,” she said. “He wants to be forgiven for what he had done and he wants the opportunity to come back and learn how to survive.”
It was extraordinary to see this wrong made right, but it only happened because the right system actors were in place. I hope Alabama leaders have the courage to grant the same chance to the 500+ others like Alvin who remain locked up with no hope of release. pic.twitter.com/S1RWJeah2R— Beth Shelburne (@bshelburne) August 28, 2019
Kennard’s family prayed that he would be released one day, knowing that the odds were against him. Then, in 2013, faced with massive overcrowding in the state’s prison system, Alabama began to rethink its sentencing guidelines and gave judges more discretion in cases like his. If the 58-year-old was sentenced for first-degree robbery today, AL.com reported, he would still be eligible for life with the possibility of parole, but the minimum sentence would be 10 years in prison.
The Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, a nonprofit legal advocacy group, took up Kennard’s case reports the washingtonpost.com. The group noted that he had been an exemplary inmate who lived in the “honor dorm” — a faith-based housing unit where prisoners are subject to stricter rules — and hadn’t been cited for a disciplinary or behavioral infraction in over a decade. Carla Crowder, the organization’s executive director and Kennard’s attorney, argued in court on Wednesday that he would likely have been eligible for parole 20 years ago if he had been sentenced under the new standards, WIAT reported.
“I just want to say I’m sorry for what I did,” he said, according to WIAT. “I take responsibility for what I did in the past. I want the opportunity to get it right.”
Kennard will be released as soon as the Alabama Department of Corrections receives the necessary paperwork.