MONTGOMERY — In recent years, more violent offenders than non-violent offenders were paroled from state prisons by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles .
In the last two years alone, more than 3,500 violent offenders were released — 1,635 in 2017 and 1,891 in 2018.
As the state grapples with dangerous and crowded prisons, leaders are trying to find a balance between increasing parole numbers and ensuring public safety.
“You do want to decrease the number of early paroles for the most violent of violent offenders —murderers, rapists, child molesters and human trafficking,” Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told Alabama Daily News. “But you also don’t want to start paroling no one, because then your prison population is going to explode, and it’s going to exacerbate your overcrowding issue. It’s a balance.”
Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office, which along with Ward advocated this year for oversight changes at Pardons and Parole, argued the law governing paroles does not factor in prison overcrowding, but aims to ensure those released are not a threat to the public.
“The Attorney General has no opinion on the level of overall parole numbers now or in the future,” a spokesperson for Marshall's office said. “The goal should be to ensure public safety, not meeting a numerical target.”
The Board of Pardons and Paroles does not track the number of inmates given early release by crime. However, in response to a public records request, the agency did provide Alabama Daily News statistics on violent and non-violent parolees, available since 2017.
Ward said the rate of violent offenders being paroled didn’t surprise him or alarm him because the majority of Alabama’s prison population is comprised of what Alabama law defines as “violent offenders.”
According to the Alabama Department of Corrections’ latest monthly report, of a total of 27,680 current inmates, 65 percent of the inmates (18,004) were considered violent.
A violent offense under Alabama statute can be anything from capital murder, assault, kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, burglary, intimidating a witness, child abuse, human trafficking and sexual abuse.
A non-violent offense is any crime that isn’t classified as a violent offense.
In May, the Legislature passed, and Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law, House Bill 380 from Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, which overhauled the Pardons and Paroles governance structure and codified its policies.
The new law gives Ivey more direct authority over the agency, after many complained it lacked accountability.
In July, Ivey announced she was appointing former Attorney General Charlie Graddick to take over as executive director of the agency beginning Sept. 1. Graddick was known as a tough-on-crime prosecutor and judge, and his selection was not welcomed by prisoner advocacy groups.
Ivey could also appoint a new board chairman, as current Chairwoman Lyn Head’s term has expired. Ivey’s office told Alabama Daily News last month that “all options remain on the table” for the appointment, but Head continues to serve until a decision is made.
One big impetus behind the law change was the story of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was paroled in 2017 and killed three people in Guntersville a year later. The incident led Gov. Kay Ivey to order an immediate moratorium on early release paroles and seek changes in leadership.
Rowe and Ward claim that the board was not following its own protocol, which led to Spencer and other violent offenders to be paroled early.
“The Board of Pardons and Paroles, they just disregarded their own guidelines,” Ward said. “There were a lot of people who were murderers, very violent murderers, that were getting released early.”
The new law also codifies the parole board's guidelines that say a prisoner’s first parole hearing can only be after 85 percent of the inmate's sentence is fulfilled, or at least 15 years, whichever is shorter.
Rowe has a background of more than 30 years in law enforcement, so when she looks at these parole numbers and the prison issues, her main concern is public safety.
“The biggest issue I had with the board of pardons and paroles wasn’t so much about their numbers but about public safety,” Rowe said. “I just think that they ought to do a better job of releasing better eligible candidates.”
Rowe said that the percentages of violent and non-violent parolees didn’t surprise her either, but that she isn’t focused on the numbers when it comes to Alabama prisons. Rather, she thinks the state should focus on how we can help the prisoners now and directly after release.
“For me, I don’t necessarily believe that the number of people we have in prison is the issue,” Rowe said. “I think that the issue is, are we housing them humanely, i.e. not overcrowding? Are we providing services to them for their physical and mental health? And are we creating opportunities for them to do something other than come back to prison, i.e. education, job training, things like that?”
Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), agrees the state needs to be more concerned with rehabilitating its inmates so they are more well adjusted to society upon release or parole.
Howard does not believe offenders should viewed through a lens of being a violent or nonviolent offender, but by using a complex system of other factors to see if they should be released.
“What is behind the hesitancy and frankly outright opposition to letting people who are convicted of violent crimes out of prison is this thought that if they are convicted, they need to be thrown away, and that they should not re-enter society,” Howard said. “And that should not be the nature of our penal system.”
SPLC studied the parole numbers this year to see if there was validity to the claims about multiple violent offenders being given parole who go on to commit more violent and deadly offenses.
The agency looked at inmates being paroled between Jan. 1, 2016, and June 9, 2016, and then went back two years later to September 2018 to see who was back in custody. Their findings showed that out of the 1,005 inmates that were paroled, 112 were back in the state prison system's custody in the fall of 2018, or just more than 10 percent.
Out of those 112 people, 22 were back in custody for violent offenses. Ten were back in jail for a third-degree burglary charge, and the remaining number were sent back on a drug-related arrest.
Howard contends these numbers disprove what Rowe, Ward and Marshall have claimed about violent offenders being let back into society to carry on more violent acts.
“What I didn’t see (from parole reform advocates) during the time when there was a lot of discussion about how to change the parole board and parole rules was any data analysis,” Howard said.
Plans to build
In April, the Justice Department released a report detailing the excessive levels of violence and inmate deaths seen in Alabama’s men prisons. The department threatened to sue the state unless conditions improve.
The Department of Corrections also remains under a court order from U.S. District Judge Myron Thompson to increase staffing levels and make other changes to reduce inmate suicides and other violence.
Gov. Kay Ivey is moving forward with plans to build three new prisons as a way to offset overcrowding and failing infrastructure in the current prisons.
Gina Maiola, a spokeswoman for Ivey, said that she has been engaged in making reforms within the Board of Pardons and Paroles. She decided to work with Marshall to ensure the agency was operating in the best interest of public safety.
“The legislation that would reflect this reform passed in the 2019 regular session and goes into effect Sept. 1,” a statement from Maiola said. “The governor’s efforts are ongoing as she evaluates the workings of the board. Public safety remains paramount.”
Officials with the Board of Pardons and Paroles were not able to answer questions about exact parole numbers at the time of this article being published, but did say in a statement that since the passage of the new law in June “we are being active and diligent in our efforts to ensure compliance with the bill.”