MONTGOMERY — A bill to overhaul the state Board of Pardons and Paroles advanced through a Senate committee Tuesday over the objections of current board leadership, Democrats, and prisoner advocates.
House Bill 380 alters how the Pardons and Paroles Board and its executive leadership are chosen, giving more responsibility to the governor. The bill creates a director of Pardons and Paroles position appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, which would replace the current executive director chosen by the board.
"Currently, the Board of Pardons and Paroles does not answer to an elected official," said bill sponsor Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, while speaking to the Senate Judiciary Committee. "Therefore they can do whatever in their wisdom of a three-person panel they decide to do."
She argued the 600-person state agency needs to be more accountable, hence allowing the governor appointment authority.
The bill would allow the governor to select board members from a group of nominees chosen by the speaker of the house, lieutenant governor, and senate president pro tem. Currently the chief justice of the Supreme Court and the presiding judge of the Court of Criminal Appeals are also on that nominating commission, but they would be removed under the bill in its current form.
Under the bill, at least one of the board's members must have 10 years experience in law enforcement.
The bill is in part the result of recent bad blood that pitted the Pardons and Paroles Board on one side and Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall on the other. Ivey ordered a moratorium on early release paroles after Jimmy O'Neal Spencer, who was released on parole, killed three people in Guntersville in July 2018. Last week, the state agreed to a $1 million settlement with the victims' families.
Lynn Head, the chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, said she and fellow Board members "are heartbroken" by the victims' deaths but asserted the board was not at fault.
"Let me just tell you, the prediction of the dangerousness of Jimmy O'Neal Spencer was not possible on Nov. 2, 2017 (the date he was paroled). No board member could have done it, and the attorney general didn't do it either."
Head asked the committee for time to implement strategies to improve the parole process that were developed in the wake of the controversy.
"This bill won't fix any of these [problems]," Head said. "Only time will."
Head's assertion the attorney general did not object to Spencer's release led to some sharp back-and-forth in the committee. Asked by Sen. Vivian Figures, D-Mobile, why that was the case, Katherine Robertson, chief counsel for the Attorney General's Office, began to explain that Spencer was misclassified as a "non-victim offender," which generally gets less scrutiny.
As she was explaining, Figures cut Robertson off, saying "so you all dropped the ball, too, huh?"
"I wouldn't say that," Robertson responded.
"Well I would," quipped Figures, as committee chairman Sen. Cam Ward intervened, asking Figures to be courteous to guests.
Figures later apologized to Robertson, saying she was "very passionate" about the parole issue and still "not over" the recent passage of a bill to ban almost all abortions in the state.
After the committee hearing, Robertson explained in detail the situation at the crux of the argument.
“Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was improperly classified by the board as a non-victim offender," she said. "That mistake denied the Attorney General’s Office the notice that we needed to protest. The board also failed to notify the Franklin County district attorney, a mistake that also denied him the notice that he needed to protest," Robertson said. "While these were serious mistakes, the board’s failure to properly supervise Mr. Spencer was its most egregious error. To try to blame that costly error on the Attorney General’s Office is preposterous. I regret that I was not given the opportunity, in committee, to fully rebut Chairman Head’s assertion.”
Beyond governance, the bill specifies in law the timelines for when prisoners can be eligible for parole based on the severity of their crimes. For non-violent prisoners with good behavior sentenced to between five and 10 years, they would be eligible for parole in 18 months. For non-violent prisoners with good behavior sentenced to between 10 and 15 years, they would be eligible for parole in 30 months.
Those convicted of violent crimes including first degree rape, kidnapping, murder, sodomy, robbery with physical injury and other Class A felonies would be forced to serve 15 years in prison or 85 percent of their sentence before being eligible for paroles.
The bill passed on a party-line vote, with six Republicans voting to advance it and five Democrats voting to stop it. It now goes to the full Senate, where supporters hope it can receive a vote in the session's final days.
"I know this is a passionate issue," Ward said. "We've talked individually, we've talked through the issues in this committee, and I know we'll have a lot more conversation on the floor."
Ward, a longtime prison reform advocate who is carrying the bill in the Senate, thanked the committee for advancing the bill and promised the debate over the bill's particulars would continue on the floor.
Sen. Roger Smitherman, D-Birmingham, was the final Democrat to speak against the bill. He argued it was a personal vendetta against current Pardons and Paroles Executive Director Eddie Cook, who has come under criticism recently.
"I feel like to get him and to punish him (for the Spencer controversy), I think that it's wrong to come in and let one person serve as God – whomever it might be, any governor," Smitherman said.