After months of a reduction in parole hearings for Alabama’s incarcerated, the state Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is ramping up the numbers of those hearings.
In a response to ARP’s questions Monday about how those hearings are set, Bureau spokesman Terry Abbott said that the agency has a target goal of 540 hearings during the month of March.
That goal is much higher than the 150 hearings that were scheduled for January 2020, and nearly 200 more than the 343 hearings scheduled for February.
The increase in parole hearings comes after Bureau director Charlie Graddick received pressure recently from state legislators and outside groups concerned over the slowdown in those hearings, but Abbott in a message to APR on Tuesday said that pressure was not the cause of the increase.
“The increase in hearings was not the result of legislative or ACLU criticism. Under the law, cases have to be docketed 45 days before the hearings, so information on the number of hearings and which inmates will have their cases heard is published on our website 45 days in advance,” Abbott’s message reads. “The number of hearings has been increasing steadily. All the hearings docketed for February were scheduled in January or before, long before the recent criticism from the Legislature and the ACLU.”
At a budget presentation on Jan. 23 Graddick was grilled by lawmakers on the bureau’s decline in paroles. Asked how many paroles had been granted since he became director, Graddick said that he was unsure, and that parole decisions are made by the board, not by him.
“The parole board follows the law and then the three of them make their judgment as to whether or not they’re going to be a risk to the community. And I guess we’ve just got too many violent people in jail,” Graddick said during the meeting, according to Al.com’s Mike Cason.
Cason also reported that Graddick spoke with reporters after the meeting about why he thinks fewer people were being paroled.
“I had a man who’s been in this business a long time tell me about a month ago that they’ve taken all of the low-hanging fruit out of the prisons,” Graddick said, according to AL.com. “That means that we don’t have people there anymore that really qualify. They just don’t.”
The ACLU of Alabama recently made two records requests to the bureau to find out why so many fewer incarcerated people were getting hearings, asking which policies and procedures were being used to schedule those hearings.
Beth Shelburne, and investigative reporter for ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, in a statement expressed concern that the requests weren’t being responded to with proper responses.
“We’ve asked to see the specific policy or procedure that guides the scheduling of parole hearings. We’ve also asked to interview any supervisor within the agency who can walk us through the process, but I was told today that my interview request would not be granted,” Shelburne said in the statement. “We’ve submitted a new request, renewing our commitment to hold this state agency accountable. The Governor and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must follow through on transparency and answer our questions about this important policy.”
Graddick, through spokesman Terry Abbott, declined APR’s interview request Monday.
“Judge Graddick hasn’t been doing one-on-one interviews because he is focused on directing the ongoing improvements in the agency,” Abbott wrote to APR.
Graddick was appointed director on Sept. 1, 2019, by Gov. Kay Ivey, and quickly suspended all parole hearings, saying that the victim notice process wasn’t being followed properly.
When hearings resumed in November, the number of people getting them dropped dramatically. Just 17 people were granted parole during November and December 2019, according to ACLU of Alabama’s report. Ninety-two percent of eligible parolees were not granted release during those months.
Abbott in a message to APR on Monday said that the Bureau’s Board Operations Division is tasked with setting incarcerated people for hearings.
“Preparation specifically includes a face to face interview and risk assessment of the inmate by an Institutional Parole Officer. Completed files with all compiled records/reports that have been located are transferred onto dockets based on which cases have been completely worked at the time a docket is set,” Abbott wrote in his response.
“The board’s current practice is to hear cases on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, and Thursdays of each week. Hearing notices for officials and victims are simultaneously prepared and sent as required by law when dockets are set,” Abbott said. “The overall process thus consists generally of a target number of eligible cases coming before the board in sequential order grouped by inmate eligibility date but with some variation due to delays most often caused by location complications encountered for victim cases.”
Abbott described a process in which all the work to prepare a case is done first, then the cases are set on dockets to be heard by the board.
Lyn Head, former Tuscaloosa County district attorney who resigned as chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles in September 2019, told APR by phone on Monday that it was her understanding that during her time on the board and before, the cases that were eligible for a hearing were docketed, and “that they were prepared and gotten ready based on their settings on the docket.”
“Because the time-consuming thing between the setting and the case and the hearing of the case is notices,” Head said, referring to notices to victims, family members and parties required by law to be notified of an upcoming parole hearing. “Those statutory notices have to be taken care of.”
Head said that those notices were going out as required by law when she was on the board.
“My prayer is that this will be resolved, because there are 25,000 people – and I use the word people very carefully. I’m talking about people who are incarcerated – who’ve got to feel desperate and hopeless at this point,” Head said. “They’ve been doing all the right things and their cases aren’t even coming up in a timely manner.”
The reduction in paroles came after the U.S. Department of Justice in April released a report that found there was reason to believe Alabama was violating prisoners’ Constitutional rights to protection from physical violence and sexual assault by housing them in overcrowded, understaffed and unsafe facilities.
At least 14 incarcerated men died by homicide in Alabama in 2019, which was more than twice as many as were killed during the entire ten-year period between 1999 and 2009. Alabama’s prison homicide rate is almost nine times the national average for state prisons, according to U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics.
At least 28 people died as a result from either homicide, drug overdose or suicide in state prisons in 2019.
State lawmakers passed sentencing reforms in 2013 and 2015, which resulted in a decrease of inmate population from about 200 percent of capacity to around 160 percent.
Between 2013 and 2018 Alabama’s prison population dropped from 26,293 to 20,618 but the reductions changed course in 2019.
ADOC data that shows that in April 2019 the state’s in-custody prison population was greater than the previous year by almost 300 inmates, which was the first time that’s happened since February 2013. In June, the ADOC recorded 639 more inmates than the state held in custody the previous June.
Graddick in an op-ed published by APR on Dec. 4, 2019, said the bureau isn’t responsible for alleviating prison overcrowding.
“It is not the Board’s duty, role, or responsibility by law or otherwise, nor the Director’s, to alleviate prison overcrowding,” Graddick wrote.
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, said during the budget hearing on Jan. 23 that the state was under threat of a federal takeover of its prison system if fixes aren’t made.
Ward also decried the bureau’s practice of publicly releasing information on a potential parolee’s past crimes, something that began after Graddick’s appointment.
“The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles will hold 34 parole hearings this week, including hearings for 22 violent offenders, among them 6 murderers, 1 sex offender, 2 convicted of attempted murder, 1 for manslaughter and 5 for robbery #crime #safety #victims,” the Bureau tweeted on Monday.
Over 11 tweets on Feb. 23 the agency commented on those turned down for parole that day, noting each person’s criminal history and using hashtags including #crimes, #prison, #drugs and #victims.
Head said that there are “tens of thousands” of stories about formerly incarcerated people who are living productive lives outside of prison.
“At the beginning of 2019 there were 69,000 people who were being supervised by the agency,” Head said. “And those people were being successfully supervised…We don’t hear about those.”
“I think that pressure is the only thing that’s going to make this right,” Head said, referring to those lawmakers pointed questions to Graddick at last week’s budget presentation. “Because it doesn’t appear as though anybody is thinking about those people as people.”
House Judiciary Committee passes bail reform law named for Aniah Blanchard
The House Judiciary Committee on Wednesday passed a bill to give judges more discretion in denying bail to people accused of committing violent crimes.
The bill is named for Aniah Blanchard, a 19-year-old Alabama college student who was kidnapped and murdered last year. The man charged with her murder, Ibraheed Yazeed, was out on bond for charges including kidnapping and attempted murder at the time he was arrested in connection with Blanchard’s case.
Currently, judges can only deny bond in capital murder cases. The bill would allow judges to deny bail in cases involving certain violent offenses.
Blanchard’s father, Elijah Blanchard, stepmother, Yashiba Blanchard, and mother, Angela Harris, spoke to the House Judiciary Committee today in support of the law.
“This would not have happened to our child if this bill would have been in place,” Harris said. “We can save a lot of lives by doing this because, because with repeat violent offenders, they are going to repeat.”
If the bill passes the full House and Senate, it will appear on the ballot in November.
Legislation would limit death penalty appeals
Alabama Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth on Tuesday discussed legislation that would reduce the length of some death penalty appeals.
“Over the last 13 month, seven Alabama law enforcement officers have been killed in the line of duty by violent criminals, which is a new record and obviously not one the state of Alabama is proud of,” Ainsworth said during the press conference at the Alabama State House on Tuesday. “Back the blue has got to be more than just a slogan. Actions must follow words.”
Ainsworth said that death row inmates in Alabama serve approximately 14 years on average before executions are carried out, and that there needs to be a “fair but expedited process in Alabama.”
The proposed legislation would prevent the Alabama Supreme Court from hearing death row appeals in capital murder cases, and would stop all such appeals at the state Court of Criminal Appeals level.
The bills would also require the criminal appeals court to expedite death row appeals when possible, and would reduce the amount of time a person has to appeal such convictions to the U.S. Supreme Court, Ainsworth said.
“This legislation still affords a thorough appeals process, and all the protections guaranteed to them under the U.S. Constitution,” Ainsworth said. “It has been designed to provide both equal justice to inmates, and swifter justice to their victims.”
State Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, a candidate for a seat on the state Supreme Court and sponsor of the senate’s version of the bill, said during the press conference that while overall crime rates have been declining, murders in Alabama have increased 25 percent over the last three years.
“I’ve always been an advocate for criminal justice reform, but let me tell you something, public safety is first and foremost, Ward said. “…I think this is a reasonable bill. It still provides for due process.”
State Rep. Connie Row,R-Jasper, is sponsoring the bill in the House and said that as a former police chief she recognizes the value of the lives of those who serve the public. She also worked with crime victims in capital cases, she said, and in “capital cases it’s seeing if you can live long enough to see justice served in a death penalty case.”
The bills also add language that would allow the Alabama Department of Corrections to conduct executions at facilities other than the Holman Correctional Facility near Atmore, where the state’s death chamber is currently located.
ADOC commissioner Jeff Dunn said in January that all death row inmates were being moved to Holman, while the majority of the prison’s areas for other incarcerated men was being closed due to concerns over maintenance problems in a tunnel that carries utilities to those portions of the prison. The death row section of Holman was to remain open, Dunn said.
There are 175 people serving on the state’s death row, according to Alabama Department of Corrections statistics.
Attempts Tuesday to reach staff at the Equal Justice Initiative for comment on the legislation were unsuccessful. The Montgomery legal aid nonprofit works to exonerate death row inmates, among its other initiatives.
According to the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit Death Penalty Information Center 167 incarcerated people on death row in the U.S. have been exonerated and released from prison since 1973. Among those formerly on death row, six were scheduled to die by execution in Alabama.
The last Alabama death row inmate exonerated was Anthony Hinton, freed in April 2015 after spending 30 years on death row for the 1985 murders of two fast food supervisors in Birmingham.
The only evidence presented at Hinton’s trial was ballistics testing state prosecutors said proved the bullets that killed the two men came from a gun Hinton’s mother owned.
Hinton lost appeals for a decade before the Equal Justice Initiative took up his case. Subsequent ballistics testing by the nonprofit in 2002 proved that the bullets weren’t a match for the firearm, but the state declined to re-examine the case.
It took another 12 years for Hinton’s appeal to reach the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court’s ruling and granted a new trial.
The judge in his new trial dismissed the charges after the state’s prosecutors determined through additional testing that the bullets could not have come from Hinton’s mother’s gun.
A 2009 study by professors at the University of Colorado and published in the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology found that 88 percent of the leading criminologists in the U.S. polled did not believe the death penalty effectively deters crime.
Of the leading criminologists polled in the study, 87 percent said that speeding up executions would not add a deterrent effect on crime.
Conservative Leadership Conference panel discusses prison reform
A panel discussed reforming Alabama’s prisons at the Conservative Leadership Conference in Florence Saturday.
State Senator Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, is Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and serves on the state prison task force. He is also a Republican candidate for Alabama Supreme Court, Place 1.
“Prison reform is a very vague term,” Ward said.
Ward warned that the state is under the threat of federal receivership of its prison and “It is going to cost money,” to satisfy the federal courts and the Department of Justice.
Recidivism is the rate that convicts re-offend once they are released. Decreasing the recidivism rate is a key component of addressing prison overcrowding.
Rich Anderson works with the Alabama Attorney General’s office.
“There are plenty of folks in prison that don’t want to do anything else,” Anderson said.
“There is an old saying that you can lead a horse to water; but you can’t make him drink,” Anderson said. “I want to make sure that there is water to be had if these guys want to drink.”
Chris Connolly is the Lauderdale County District Attorney.
“If they are selling drugs in Alabama they need to go to prison,” Connolly said.
“Taking away local discretion is a bad thing to me,” Connolly added on proposed sentencing law changes.
Mary Windom is the presiding Judge of the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals. Windom is running for re-election in the Republican primary for her Place 1 seat.
She thanked Ward for working with her on reducing the number of frivolous appeals of criminal verdicts. It took two years for the Legislature to understand.
“40 percent of them (inmates in Alabama’s prisons) have a mental health issue,” Ward said. 76 percent of them are there for violent crimes.
Anderson said that Alabama currently has 175 people on death row and the AG’s office only has eight lawyers in our division to handle all of those appeals from death row inmates.
Windom said that she and the other judges on the Court of Criminal Appeals have a large caseload.
“The five judges on the court of the criminal appeals handle all of those case plus every other criminal appeal,” Anderson explained. “One of the frustrations is how long death penalty cases take.”
Anderson said that many of those filings by defense teams in death penalty appeals cases are two hundred and three hundred pages long.
Connolly said, “David Riley executed a guy who was doing his job in a liquor store. Everybody knows he did it. If it (the death penalty) were real he would be dead.”
“It takes twenty years,” Connolly said.
“It is down to fourteen,” Ward answered.
“It needs to happen sooner,” Connolly replied. A guy like David Riley should already have been executed. “The problem is that the appeals never end. Justice delayed is justice denied.”
Rich Anderson blamed “Fake News” for creating a “false narrative” that there are lots of innocent people convicted of a crime. When there is a retrial and a guy like me can’t find the witness from twenty years ago that person is released and the defense claims he was exonerated and not guilty of the crime in the first place. That is not true.
“They are poisoning the public with that the prosecutor is not a minister of justice,” Anderson said. “That is a problem in our country this false narrative that we have all of these people. Exoneration is a false narrative.”
Ward said that exoneration is only a small part of criminal cases.
“I have been a defense attorney,” Connolly said. “I know how that game works.”
House passes bill to make it a hate crime to attack law enforcement
The Alabama House of Representatives passed legislation Thursday that would add law enforcement officers to Alabama’s hate crimes statute. It now moves to the Senate.
The House passed HB59 by a margin of 92 to 0.
Under current law a crime become a hate crime if a person is victimized because of their race, creed, or disability. Murder to make money, in a crime of passion, or in the commission of a crime is murder. If a racist targets a person because of their race, then it become a hate crime and additional sentencing enhancements kick in under Alabama sentencing guidelines. House Bill 59 would make targeting a member of law enforcement because they are a member of law enforcement also a hate crime.
House Bill 59 is sponsored by State Representative Rex Reynolds (R-Huntsville).
Reynolds said that Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall supports the legislation.
“An attack on law enforcement in Alabama is an attack on all of her citizens—an attack on all Alabamians.…” Marshall said on social media. “If you take the life the life of a law enforcement officer, you will likely have forfeited your life as well.”
Marshall stated, “To the brave men and women who wear that badge, my heroes: Don’t give up. Don’t lose heart. Keep fighting the good fight, because your cause is righteous. Know that you have our support and our eternal gratitude.”
Reynolds said that attacks on law enforcement, whether it is throwing water on them, assaults, or assassinations are up across the country. “We are not going to stand for it anymore.”
State Representative Mary Moore (D-Birmingham) said, “I support the bill, but there are too many guns on the street.”
Moore proposed banning high powered rifles and AR-15s. “We need to level the playing field for them.” :We stand ready to come up with a bipartisan bill to curb the number of guns on the street. We need men and women who are not afraid of the National Rifle Association.”
“We have got to change how police officers are treated,” said Rep. Allen Treadaway (R-Morris). “I have been to too many police funerals.”
Treadaway is a police captain with Birmingham Police Department.
“The disrespect for police officers is unprecedented,” Treadaway said. “I have been a law enforcement officer for 30 years and I have not seen anything like it. We can’t hire police. We can’t retain police.”
Rep. Artis “A. J.” McCampbell (D-Livingston) said, “We have had eight police officers killed in the last 13 months.”
“How do we enhance the crimes when we already have a capital case for the murder of a police officer?” McCampbell asked.
Reynolds said that the sentence enhancements would apply when the police were targeted; but it is not a capital crime. 6,500 police officers were assaulted last year.
Reynolds said that harming an officer while attempting to escape or resisting arrest would not qualify as a hate crime. Attacking police because the motive is hate of the police would be a hate crime and then sentencing enhancements would apply.
Reynolds said that under current law if they are convicted of a capital crime of killing the police they get the death penalty.
Rep. John Rogers (D-Birmingham) said, “Is there a way to just give them the death penalty without going through all the appeals?”
Reynolds said, “I sure wish we could.”
Rogers said, “The death penalty should be automatic.”
Rogers daughter Mary Smith mas murdered.
“It has to be adjudicated in the court system before these enhancements would not come into play,” Reynolds said. “I hope there will come a day when a bill like this is not needed because people respect law enforcement.”
Rep. Arnold Mooney (R-Indian Springs) said that the police, sheriffs, and other law enforcement and first responders at the thin blue line protecting us and our families.
Mooney is a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate.
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