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House passes bill to reform Pardons and Paroles Board

Brandon Moseley

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The Alabama House of Representatives on Thursday passed a bill to reform the much-maligned Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles.

House Bill 380 is sponsored by State Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper. Rowe is a retired police chief.

The bill creates a director of pardons and paroles who is appointed by the governor and codifies the rules that the board is supposed to use when considering pardons and paroles.

Rowe said that Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was sentenced to life in prison, got out in January 2018. He was out for six months, went to Guntersville and murdered three people including a 7-year-old boy.

Rowe said there were rules in place that would have kept a violent offender like Spencer from getting out until 85 percent of his sentence. The current board ignored those rules.

State Rep. Mary Moore, D-Birmingham, said the bill gives the governor and the attorney general too much authority.

“The role of pardons and paroles is public safety,” Rowe said. “This makes the task of the Pardons and Paroles Board more clear.”

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“We are changing the structure of the Pardons and Paroles Board,” said State Rep. Dexter Grimsley, D-Abbeville.

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“This codifies those rules that are too often ignored by the board,” Rowe said.

“I wish that the appointees must have some knowledge of the operations of the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” Grimsley said.

“If he (Spencer) had looked like me, they would never have let him out,” said State Rep. Thomas Jackson.

“This bill will not solve the problem because every time someone gets out of prison, we don’t know what they will do,” said State Rep. Ralph Howard, D-Greensboro.

“The 600-plus officers of the Department of Pardons and Paroles answer to the board, not to the executive director,” Rowe said.

“This bill is going to have unintended consequences,” said Juandalynn Givan, D-Birmingham. “The Pardons and Paroles Board is not broken.”

The new director of Pardons and Paroles will be appointed by the governor, rather than working up through the ranks like the current executive director normally does. The governor appointed director would oversee the 600 employees instead of the board, whose sole purpose would become making the decisions on pardons and paroles rather than also serving in an administration function.

“One single person making all of these decisions is a problem I have with this,” Grimsley said.

In 1939, the Legislature took direct oversight over pardons and paroles from the governor and put it under the Legislature.

“I think they (Pardons and Paroles) should be answerable to the executive branch,” Rowe said. “Currently, they are answerable to no one.”

Rep. Wes Kitchens, R-Guntersville, said he represents the district where that 7-year-old boy who liked playing with John Deere tractors was killed while spending the summer with his great-grandmother.

Kitchens said the man who killed him had a long rap sheet that stretched to the 1980s and had escaped from prison before. He was even arrested a month before the slayings but was not sent back to prison for parole violations.

“We all make mistakes,” Rowe said. “When I try to cook I often make mistakes; but the parole board made a mistake that killed three people. If this case in Guntersville was the only one, I wouldn’t be bringing this; but we have crimes all over this state from people who got out and are re-offending, robbing, killing and raping.”

“I know Gov. (Kay) Ivey is a powerful woman, but this gives her too much power, and that concerns me,” said State Rep. John Rogers, D-Birmingham.

“If I was the governor, I would run so far away from this bill that you would think I was a track star,” Roger said. “We have had a lot of governors get in trouble for pan handling, and this bill sets up for a lot of pan handling.”

State Rep. Kirk Hatcher, D-Montgomery, said he could not support handing over legislative authority over Pardons and Paroles “to the Governor and her minions.”

Due to opposition, Rowe agreed to amending the bill to restore the nominating committee of the lieutenant governor, the speaker of the house and the speaker pro tempore. An earlier version of the bill gave the governor more autonomy. The chief justice of the Alabama Supreme Court no longer serves on the nominating committee under this amendment.

Because of opposition from Democrats, the Republicans eventually had to invoke cloture.

House Majority Leader Nathanial Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, brought a cloture motion to force a vote. The cloture motion passed 74 to 24.

The bill passed the House 73 to 26. HB380 now goes to the Senate for their consideration.

The Southern Poverty Law Center opposes the bill.

“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,” said SPLC Senior Supervising Attorney Ebony Howard. “Without the incentive of reentering society, incarcerated people are more likely to act out in prisons, and our state’s prisons will continue to be among the most dangerous for incarcerated people and guards in the country.”

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall applauded passage of the legislation.

“I am pleased today that the Alabama House has heeded the call of thousands of Alabama crime victims in passing House Bill 380 to fix the badly broken Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, including giving the governor authority to appoint a director of Pardons and Paroles and establish their responsibilities,” Marshall said in a statement.  “In particular, I want to thank Rep. Connie Rowe for her commitment to correcting this extremely important public-safety problem. The legislation has been the subject of vigorous and lengthy debate, and I appreciate Speaker Mac McCutcheon’s dedication to positioning it for final passage. I look forward to similar efforts in the Alabama Senate in the days to come.”

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