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ACLU of Alabama report: Parole reductions to worsen prison overcrowded in 2020

A report released Monday predicts that in 2020 Alabama’s deadly, overcrowded prisons, already under threat of a federal takeover, will become even more crowded, largely due to a dramatic reduction in the number of paroles being granted.  

The report, published by the Campaign for Smart Justice with the ACLU of Alabama, predicts that the state prison population this year will increase by 3,772 people, and that 84 percent of that increase will be due to a decline in paroles. 

Since September, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied the release of 92 percent of people who were scheduled for parole hearings, the report notes, and the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles has also drastically reduced the number of inmates being granted those hearings. 

“Approximately 150 hearings are scheduled in January 2020, compared to over 600 per month in 2018,” the report states. 

Of the 200 people considered for release in November and December, the board granted releases to just 17, according to the report, which used ADOC’s annual and monthly statistical reports. 

Also notable in the report are recent increases in custody admissions and in the total prison population. 

Between 2015, when Alabama lawmakers approved a series of sentencing reforms, and 2018, the prison population declined from 25,201 to 20,585. That number jumped to 21,680 in 2019 and is expected to hit 25, 452 this year, according to the report’s estimates, wiping away the gains from 2015’s sentencing reforms. 

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The number if people being admitted to state prisons has risen each year of the past four years, according to the report, jumping from 7, 478 in 2015 to 9,822 last year. The report states that, barring any changes, the state could house 25,452 inmates in 2020. 

“This alarming projection comes as the ADOC is already failing to prevent runaway violence in prisons that are 168 percent over capacity with staffing levels hovering at 37 percent,” The ACLU’s report reads. “In 2019, at least 28 people died in ADOC custody due to homicide, suicide or overdoses.” 

In April 2019, the U.S. Department of Justice released a report that states there is reasonable cause to believe that Alabama’s prisons are in violation of the Constitution by failing to protect inmates from violence and sexual assault. 

Reductions in paroles comes after after the parole of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence for mostly non-violent crimes. Spencer is charged with capital murder in the deaths of three people in Guntersville, which took place after his 2017 release. 

Following those deaths Gov. Kay Ivey signed into law changes to the bureau that included the governor’s power to appoint a director.  

Ivey in July appointed former state attorney general Charles Graddick as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, who quickly placed three members of the agency, including his predecessor, on leave and made public statements that the bureau hadn’t followed proper procedures, including the notification of crime victims before hearings. 

Former Board Chair Lyn Head resigned in September following the staff shakeup. Head told that she did not believe that the agency was broken, as Attorney General Steve Marshall had said in support of the changes. 

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“Alabama’s Parole Board and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles have tremendous power over our prison population,” said Randall Marshall, executive director of ACLU of Alabama, in a statement Monday. Their decisions to docket fewer eligible people for hearings and to grant fewer paroles are exacerbating Alabama’s prison crisis systemwide.” 

Marshall said in the statement that for individuals who are trying to survive inside Alabama’s overcrowded and violent prisons “the board’s actions can truly be a matter of life or death.” 

“State agencies should be working together to solve this disaster, but instead new leadership at the Bureau and Board have doubled down, justifying their actions with the same old tough-on-crime ideology and fear-driven rhetoric that has pushed Alabama’s addiction to incarceration for decades,” Marshall’s statement reads. 

It was unclear Monday why so many fewer people were being granted parole hearings. APR’s attempts to reach a spokesman for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles on Monday were unsuccessful. 

An ADOC spokeswoman told APR on Monday that the department would provide answers to a reporter’s questions on Tuesday. This article will be updated with those responses.

Asked whether Gov. Kay Ivey was concerned about the reports findings, Ivey’s spokeswoman Gina Maiola released a statement to APR on Monday. 

“As a public safety necessity, there was a dire need to change how things were being done at Pardons and Paroles. Governor Ivey tasked Judge Graddick to enact critical reform, and she has full confidence that he will continue guiding this change and ensure the previous failures do not occur again,” the statement from Ivey’s office reads. “She has made it clear that one of her main priorities is to address the many challenges facing the state’s prison system, which includes the issue of overcrowding. Granting paroles for the sole reason of meeting a quota is a shiftless method to solving the greater problems, not appropriate and not in the best interest of any Alabamian. The governor looks forward to working with her Study Group on Criminal Justice Reform to make substantive change this coming Session.”

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Eddie Burkhalter is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can email him at [email protected] or reach him via Twitter.

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