MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is looking at how it might restart parole hearings after canceling them indefinitely three weeks ago in response to concerns about the new coronavirus.
At least one lawmaker and criminal justice advocates think parole hearings need to continue in order to mitigate the possible outbreak of COVID-19 in prisons and they argue a health order from Gov. Kay Ivey would allow parole hearings to continue virtually. Bureau officials earlier this week said online hearings weren’t legal.
Bureau Director Charlie Graddick said in an emailed statement Thursday that the bureau hopes to “announce a plan and timetable soon” on when parole hearings can resume.
“The resumption of hearings is a complex issue given the national health emergency, stringent laws governing the board’s hearing process, including a 30-day notice requirement to crime victims and officials, and the legal requirements providing crime victims and other stakeholders the opportunity for meaningful in-person participation,” Graddick said.
Alabama law says the bureau is not allowed to hold meetings and deliberations through electronic communications, but the March 18 health order from Gov. Kay Ivey states that any governmental body may take actions through telecommunications during this public health emergency.
Alabama Daily News asked Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office whether parole hearings could be legally conducted virtually during a state of emergency. Marshall’s office declined to comment and referred questions back to Graddick.
The governor’s office would not say specifically whether it would be legal for virtual parole hearings to be conducted or whether she supported resuming hearings in such a manner.
“Gov. Ivey recognizes the importance of keeping Alabama’s criminal justice system functioning for the good of public safety,” spokeswoman Gina Maiola told ADN. “She has included within her state of emergency proclamations for government entities to utilize virtual meetings to ensure efficiency and allow for the continuity of critical government services.”
State Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, thinks it is legal for parole hearings to be conducted virtually and they should begin as soon as possible.
“All government agencies up until this point have been called into account at one point or another, and it’s just remarkable to me that knowing the potential crisis within the prison system, we haven’t heard anything from the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles,” England told ADN.
England said there is a “considerable medically fragile” population within Alabama’s prisons, and if COVID-19 were to become widespread in facilities, there could be a major loss of life.
“The easy answer on the department’s position shouldn’t be we just aren’t going to do anything until this is over with,” England said. “We all need to be pulling in the same direction and that includes the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.”
Representatives for Alabamians for Fair Justice, a coalition that advocates for criminal justice rights, wrote a letter to Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn that suggests measures to protect inmates in crowded facilities, including starting parole hearings again.
In a press release Monday they advocated for the release of several groups of inmates, including older adults, people under the age of 18, people with chronic illnesses or disabilities, pregnant women and those near the end of their sentences or already eligible for parole.
ADOC said this week that preventative measures have been taken to protect inmates and prison personnel. Among those measures are establishing isolation areas for inmates who exhibit symptoms, providing additional hygiene products like bars of soap to inmates, doing temperature checks and enhancing screening for facility employees.
A 30-day moratorium on all county jail transfers to prisons began on March 20 and in-person visitation has also been suspended.
Currently, the department has not reported any prisoner as testing positive for COVID-19. Two ADOC staff members have tested positive, one from Staton Correctional Facility and one from St. Clair Correctional Facility.
As of April 6, 30 inmates have been tested for COVID-19 and seven are still awaiting results.
If parole hearings were to begin again, it is unlikely that enough inmates could be released to make a huge difference in crowding and creating the necessary six-feet of separation the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention recommends.
According to a recently released report from the ACLU, in fiscal year 2019, the number of people released on parole in Alabama dropped 46%. The report projects that if the current trend on granting parole continues, only 134 inmates will be released on parole in fiscal year 2020. In fiscal year 2018, 4,239 inmates were released on parole.
Graddick, a former state attorney general, has taken a firm stance against the parole of those convicted of violent crimes and has made concerted effort to revamp the image of the parole board since Ivey appointed him as the new director in 2019. Graddick temporarily delayed parole hearings last year to reorganize the bureau and make sure proper notification requirements were being followed, something he said previous leadership was not doing.
Another measure that England is suggesting the parole board use during this pandemic is medical parole.
The Alabama Medical Parole Act passed in 2017 allows ADOC to compile a list of inmates who are either 60 years old or older, convicted of a non-capital offense and suffer from a completely debilitating illness that requires daily assistance for their basic care; or are permanently incapacitated; or have a terminal illness that will likely result in their death within a year.
The ADOC has to initiate the medical parole process and the list of eligible inmates is then given to the bureau of pardons and paroles to consider.
Terry Abbott, the director of communications for the bureau, told ADN that medical paroles would likely also not be considered by the board because of health concerns for all those coming to the hearings.
“Family members, friends, attorneys, representatives for both the inmate and the victims would come to Montgomery for the hearings,” Abbott said. “The three board members would have to be in close quarters, along with all the bureau staff members who work with the board on case file reviews. In addition, the medical parole process is initiated by the Alabama Department of Corrections, not by the parole board. It’s a lengthy process as there are a number of special criteria which must be determined.”
An email was sent Thursday to ADOC officials asking how many inmates have been submitted by the department for medical parole since 2018.
Some states have taken steps to release inmates in order to lessen the possible spread of COVID-19 in prisons.
The Georgia State Board of Pardons and Paroles said it started reviewing inmate cases who are serving for non-violent offenses and who are within 180 days of completing their sentence.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said he would commute the sentences of more than 900 inmates in state prisons who were serving for non-violent, non-sexual crimes, FOX19 reported.
The New Orleans Parish District Court judges issued a blanket order to release those being housed at the New Orleans jail awaiting trial for a misdemeanor offense, arrest for failure to appear at probation status hearing, contempt of court or those jailed for failing a drug screening, WDSU6 News reported.
Some additional actions have been taken on the local level in Alabama. Nineteenth Circuit Judge Ben Fuller recently announced the release of some inmates in Autauga, Elmore and Chilton county jails with bonds under $5,000, the Montgomery Advertiser reported.
Even if parole hearings were to reconvene, Abbott said that the bureau is required by law to give 30 days notice of hearings.
The bureau in early March suspended all in-person reporting for those currently on parole unless they are reporting for the first time.
There are more than 20,000 people being supervised by parole and probation officers throughout the state.
Abbott told ADN that officers will “continue to make home in-person visits to those parolees and probationers who are under intensive level supervision.” All other parolees will be reporting to their local field officers by phone during this time.