Alabama Prisons

Parole Hearings Continue Despite COVID-19

Since being authorized to hold parole hearings under a special order from Gov. Kay Ivey, the state Board of Pardons and Paroles has held more than 1,200 hearings and granted 253 paroles.

In the past, the board has held public hearings. But because of the pandemic, it is holding hearings in which it reviews materials submitted by the interested parties.­

“Crime victims and their representatives, law enforcement and families of the offenders are contacted more than a month ahead of time and told when a hearing is scheduled and are invited to submit written testimony in favor of or in opposition to parole,” state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles communications director Terry Abbott said via Facebook Messenger. “The board holds hearings every Tuesday through Thursday and reviews all the material that has been submitted along with the case files on every inmate and then makes a decision.”

The board had suspended hearings in March due to the pandemic. Following an authorization order from Ivey, it resumed them on May 19, holding 22 hearings and granting two paroles. Since then, it has held as many as 45 hearings in one sitting. It has granted no paroles in three sessions and granted up to 15 in a session June 23. It also has continued a handful of hearings until a later date. Summaries of each session are published on the Bureau of Pardon and Paroles website, and those summaries state that many, if not a majority of those denied parole, “have been convicted of violent crimes.”

An inmate is paroled when he or she is released before completing their sentence, and paroled inmates are required to meet certain conditions. One of those conditions is regularly reporting to a parole officer. If a paroled inmate does not comply with those rules, he or she can be returned to prison.

“There are different levels of supervision,” Abbott said. “Some report every week, some every month. Since COVID hit, our officers have done both phone checks in with probationers and parolees and also home visits during which the proper social distancing is maintained.”

The pardons and paroles board has come under fire from groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union of Alabama, which in January said the board was granting too few paroles and was worsening conditions in the state’s crowded prison system.

The board has been reorganized under 2019 legislation that provided for what Attorney General Steve Marshall called “strict rules and guidelines to ensure violent offenders do not receive early, wrongful paroles.” In fall 2018, Ivey ordered a moratorium on early parole hearings, saying the board as it then existed had “docketed for early parole consideration hundreds of violent offenders, including offenders sentenced to multiple life sentences for the most serious offenses, without any apparent reasonable jurisdiction under the law.” Ivey’s executive order also called upon the board to design and implement a corrective action plan.

Earlier this year, Meredith Barnes, the general counsel for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, told the Alabama Sentencing Commission that the bureau was understaffed and underfunded. According to the bureau, “300 parole and probation officers supervise more than 27,000 offenders.”

In June, according to the latest statistical report from the Alabama Department of Corrections, the number of inmates released on parole was 33. In June 2019, the total was 182. The number of paroles granted in June, which is a separate category from the number of inmates released on parole, was 88. In June of last year, the number of paroles granted was 80.

Also in June of this year, the number of inmates under Department of Corrections’ jurisdiction totaled 26,890. Inmates under corrections’ jurisdiction include not only those in state prison facilities, but also inmates held in federal prisons, county jails and another state prison or somewhere else where they are not in the actual custody of the Department of Corrections.

In June 2019, the jurisdiction figure was 27,922. Since dropping to fewer than 1,000 in October, the number of inmates released from corrections’ jurisdiction has increased each month, totaling 9,046 in June this year. Inmates admitted to the prison system’s jurisdiction, including those re-incarcerated for parole and probation violations, totaled 7,952 in the same month.

Meanwhile, the number of inmates actually held in state prisons, work release centers and other state facilities was 19,562 in June. The previous June, state facilities held 20,711 inmates.