- Update: This bill has been passed by the House and is pending in the Senate.
MONTGOMERY — Legislation that would provide oversight changes to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and put into law when an inmate may be considered for parole cleared committees recently.
House Bill 380, sponsored by Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, and Senate Bill 42, sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, would eliminate a nominating board that makes recommendations to the governor and instead allow the governor to appoint board members with the consent of the Senate.
Rowe told Alabama Daily News that the legislation was the result of months of work between the governor’s and attorney general’s offices in trying to fix problems they see with the current board and its rules.
Comments were not available from board of pardons and paroles members Tuesday, but they have expressed opposition.
In October, Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall met with board members when concerns over early paroles were raised by prosecutors and victims’ groups. Ivey then placed the board on a 75-day moratorium and ordered a corrective action plan, which the board later provided.
Rowe said there is a lack of accountability in the current board structure and nearly 600-employee pardons and parole department because it’s not responsible to any elected official. Under the legislation, the governor would be that elected official.
Marshall said this kind of oversight is the same for other state agencies.
“Just as the governor makes appointments to the director of Alabama’s Law Enforcement Agency, we think that the board of probations is in the public safety realm and it makes sense for the governor to appoint it,” Marshall told Alabama Daily News.
Eddie Cook is the executive director of the board and sent an email across the agency last week saying that the bill is “not in the best interest of the agency and state” and to come to the committee meetings to voice their concern.
In another email, the chairperson of the parole board, Lyn Head, said that the board was “under attack” and asked members to voice their concerns about the bills to their legislators.
The bill would create a director of pardons and paroles position, which would also be appointed by the governor.
“This isn’t an attack on any one person or any one group,” Marshall said “We just think there ought to be accountability, which just doesn’t exist right now because the board itself elects the leader of the organization and there’s no one there that reports directly to the public.”
Rowe said the bill removes the board’s responsibility to provide oversight for the entire agency and allows it to focus solely on the parole cases.
“It kind of splits the board from the operations and the business side and leaves those three people to do nothing but make decisions in their judge-like role on the facts of the case and decide who should be released or not,” Rowe said. “It leaves them to do their job.”
The bill also makes it mandatory that those convicted of Class A felonies serve 85 percent of their sentences, or 15 years, whichever is less, before they are given parole.
Marshall and Rowe both said the early release of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer last year caught state leaders’ attention.
Spencer was serving a life sentence for multiple robberies in the 1980s and had been convicted of escape attempts and assaulting other inmates. The board granted him parole last year and he was improperly classified as a “non-victim” offender.
Spencer was then charged last July with the killing of a 7-year-old boy, his great-grandmother and another woman during the course of two robberies.
Marshall also explained that the bill makes sure the notification process for the victims is done correctly and that it makes the board a clear part of public safety functions for the state.
“They are not the vehicle in which we deal with prison overcrowding, that should be dealt with from a public policy standpoint, not by their decisions,” Marshall said.
This coverage of the 2019 session of the Alabama Legislature is provided by the Capitol News Service of Alabama Daily News, based in Montgomery. BirminghamWatch is publishing reporters’ news and analysis but not commentary, from this new partner.