The Alabama House of Representatives debated for more than five hours this week legislation that Democrats argued gave the governor’s office too much control over the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.
The bill passed Thursday evening along party lines, 73 to 27.
As originally written, House Bill 380, sponsored by Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, allowed the governor to appoint the three board members with the consent of the Senate. Currently, there is a nominating board that makes recommendations to the governor.
The bill creates a director of pardons and paroles position appointed, also by the governor.
Rowe said the bill came from concerns the governor’s and attorney general’s offices see with the current board. The goal is to increase public safety, she said.
The bill also puts into law a required amount of time offenders must serve before being eligible for parole consideration.
“The role of the Pardons and Paroles Board is for public safety and making sure folks serve the correct amount of time and are released only when that has been satisfied,” Rowe said. “This [bill] makes a path for the prisoner to the Pardons and Paroles Board clear. It’s not based on anything other than whoever they are, whatever they did, and what their sentence is, and does it fit into the frame work of these rules for release.”
Rep. Barbra Boyd, D-Anniston, said she understands that there may be a need for changes at the Board of Pardons and Paroles, but she thinks this legislation is giving up too much power to the governor.
“This is not a problem we can fix by this one bill,” Boyd said. “I have all the respect for our governor. We don’t know who will come after her. So, in my opinion, this is too much power to put in one person’s hand.”
Rep. Mary Moore, D- Birmingham, said that, even though the Senate has to give its approval of the governor’s nomination, the appointments are automatic until the Senate votes.
“She appoints the three members to the board and if the Senate is not in session, those confirmations can become automatic,” Moore said. “She can wait until they sine and die and fill the vacancy. She selects the chair of the board, she selects the director, so all of that seems like were setting up for an authoritarian government.”
The House approved an amendment from Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro, to put the speaker of the House, Senate president pro tem and the lieutenant governor on a nomination committee that would submit potential board members to the governor for approval.
“I do not think this will make this a great bill, but I’m just trying to put another layer to the system,” Howard said.
House Speaker Mac McCutcheon, R-Monrovia, said he liked the amendment from Howard.
”But at the end of the day, the governor makes the decision anyway,” McCutcheon said. “She can, and there have been governors who have made rejections on the names we’ve sent over. I do think that the amendment from Howard moving it back to that similar nominating group was a good amendment though.”
Rep. Napoleon Bracy, D-Prichard, said this legislation and a bill filed this week to change the elected state school board to one appointed by the governor are allocating too much control to the governor’s office.
“We are allowing the governor to deal with the state school board in a way that we haven’t see before and we’re allowing (the) governor to deal with pardons and paroles boards in a manner we haven’t seen before,” Bracy said. “It’s like we are just giving away the power we have.”
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 and Marshall both said state officials became concerned last year after the parole of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence and had been convicted of escape attempts and assaulting other inmates.
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.
Bracy also said the argument that there is an ongoing problem with the board releasing violent offenders too early is unproven problem, and there is not enough evidence to back that claim.
Ebony Howard, a senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center Action Fund, said data they have collected shows the parole systems process has generally been working as intended to release people who do not pose a public safety threat.
She said the legislation would end up hurting the state’s already struggling prison system.
“This bill, if passed by the Alabama Senate and signed by the governor, will have the immediate effect of limiting paroles, increasing overcrowding, and increasing hopelessness and desperation of the people under the state’s care,” Howard said in a statement.
Lynn Head, the chair of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, told Alabama Daily News that the board is following the best practices for making parole decisions according to the Association of Paroling Authorities International.
“The board is a professional, trained, full-time board, which adopts best practices in following a structured-decision-making model in making parole decisions,” Head said.
“Further, we commit to Alabama citizens that we have appointed the best-qualified executive director, based on each of our personal knowledge of his experience and character for service and leadership.”
The bill now goes to the Senate.