On December 18, 2019, I watched Alabama’s parole board deny relief to every case it considered that day. It was the last day of parole hearings for the year, and I decided to observe the process in action after monitoring the data for months as paroles plummeted like an elevator with snapped cables. Under new leaders appointed by Governor Kay Ivey, the number of scheduled parole hearings dropped by more than half compared to the year before and parole grants fell to a new low of 15 percent.
I watched the three board members deny release to people convicted of both violent and nonviolent offenses, to people whose families practically begged for parole and promised to provide a stable home, and to people who were within six months of reaching the end of their sentences. I wondered why those cases were even scheduled for hearings when there are thousands of people with long-term sentences that could be considered. Between cancellations and fewer hearings under this regime, the backlog of parole-eligible people inside Alabama prisons has ballooned to over 4000.
Only two victims out of the 18 cases scheduled that day spoke out against paroling the person who committed a crime against them, but an officer with the attorney general’s office voiced opposition in 15 of the cases. The officer began testimony against each person with the same boilerplate introduction- “We are here to protest the parole of this inmate-” never saying the person’s actual name. She pointed out their prison disciplinary infractions with no context, and went over facts from their criminal cases like she was retrying the crime in court.
In one case, she argued against paroling a man who had served over 11 years for third-degree robbery. She casually mentioned that he agreed to a plea deal after first being charged with a more serious crime, suggesting that he was more dangerous than his record indicated. A parole hearing is not the place to relitigate criminal cases, or bring up accusations against someone that didn’t pan out in court. But apparently everything in these hearings is fair game, even holding people to a standard beyond their actual convictions.
The officer with the attorney general’s office sat at a table with members of a victim’s advocacy group, who accompanied the crime victims during testimony. On the table sat cups, a pitcher of ice water and a box of tissues. Conversely, the friends and loved ones who supported parole sat at an empty table across the room. There was no one to gently usher them through the intimidating process of speaking out in support of someone who has committed a crime. Many who advocated for parole stumbled through their statements, then silently filed out of the room after hearing the decision, shoulders hunched, faces cast down. It was an exercise in shaming, much like incarceration itself.
Whether we like it or not, parole is an integral part of Alabama’s criminal sentencing structure. We have indeterminate sentences, which means judges almost always impose a range of time someone must spend in prison, with parole being the most tangible way to cut that time and return to one’s family and community. Ideally, parole gives incarcerated people something to strive for, an incentive to stay out of trouble and participate in rehabilitative programs. It should be the vehicle to pull people out of incarceration, but our current parole apparatus finds new ways to punish, to demoralize, to take away the one thing left to cling to in the dark: hope.
It has always been difficult to make parole in Alabama, but never more so than today. We are one of only two states that does not allow the person being considered for parole to participate in their own hearing. Our system has always been fraught with politics, cloaked in opacity. In 2019, Alabama received an F in a study by the Prison Policy Institute that graded fairness in state parole systems. That failing grade was before Governor Ivey appointed Charlie “lock-em-up” Graddick as executive director for the agency, with a salary of $172 thousand a year, $68 thousand more than his predecessor.
For months after Graddick began, the agency doubled as a tough-on-crime propaganda machine, issuing a daily list of parole candidates it referred to as “murderers, rapists and robbers,” along with sensational details of their crimes lifted from media reports. Press releases on parole results included celebratory headlines- “Board denies parole for 14 violent felons.” The inflammatory rhetoric calmed down only after lawmakers questioned why the very agency that decides who gets out of prison seemed intent on making everyone in prison look as terrible as possible.
This board has denied parole in 85 percent of cases, only granting 133 paroles out of 866 cases considered so far this fiscal year. In the last fiscal year, 1,337 paroles were granted out of 4,270 cases considered, and those were the lowest numbers in 15 years worth of data. This board seems particularly hellbent on denying parole for anyone serving time for a violent offense, even when they’ve served decades in prison and demonstrated rehabilitation. Multiple studies show people typically age out of criminal behavior and there’s little public safety benefit in long-term sentences. Additionally, a 2018 study on recidivism by the U.S. Department of Justice found released property offenders are much more likely to be arrested than released violent offenders.
Mr. Graddick recently announced parole hearings will resume in May after canceling hundreds of hearings due to concerns about COVID-19. But it’s not enough to just resume hearings. To mitigate the swelling backlog, the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles must aggressively increase the number of scheduled hearings. Since November, current leadership has slated an average of 173 parole hearings a month, less than half the average number of monthly hearings in fiscal year 2019. If an estimated 300 people become eligible for parole each month, the board would need to hear approximately 460 cases per month for the next 2 years just to catch up. Right now 141 hearings have been scheduled for the entire month of May.
The urgency to fix this crisis is truly a matter of life and death and all state leaders should insist that no more time be wasted. The state needs to establish an infrastructure, so all sides are supported in the parole process, not just crime victims and law enforcement. Alabama needs to provide a prison system that allows people to work toward achievable parole goals, instead of allowing unmitigated violence, corruption and apathy. And lastly, leaders must restore a meaningful chance at parole by demanding that the parole board evaluate people according to who they are now, not who they were when they committed their crimes. Every person waiting for a parole hearing, along with each person denied relief is yet another Alabamian at risk of having a prison sentence turn into a death sentence in the most overcrowded, violent prison system in the nation, which now faces the additional threat of COVID-19.
Opinion | On the Nov. 3 ballot, vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1
On Nov. 3, 2020, all Alabama voters should vote “no” on proposed Amendment 1. Vote no on Amendment 1 because it could allow state law changes to disenfranchise citizens whom the Legislature does not want to vote. Because Amendment 1 has no practical purpose and because it opens the door to mischief, all voters are urged to vote no.
Currently, the Alabama Constitution provides that “Every citizen of the United States…” has the right to vote in the county where the voter resides. Amendment 1 would delete the word “every” before citizen and replace it with “only a” citizen.
In Alabama, the only United States citizens who cannot vote today are most citizens who have been convicted of a felony of moral turpitude. These felonies are specifically identified in Ala. Code 17-3-30.1.
Without Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution now says who can vote: every citizen. If voters approve Amendment 1, the Alabama Constitution would only identify a group who cannot vote. With Amendment 1, we, the citizens of the United States in Alabama, thus would lose the state constitutional protection of our voting rights.
In Alabama, no individual who is not a United States citizens can vote in a governmental election. So, Amendment 1 has no impact on non-citizens in Alabama.
Perhaps the purpose of Amendment 1 could be to drive voter turnout of those who mistakenly fear non-citizens can vote. The only other purpose for Amendment 1 would be allowing future Alabama state legislation to disenfranchise groups of Alabama citizens whom a majority of the legislature does not want to vote.
In 2020, the ballots in Florida and Colorado have similar amendments on the ballots. As in Alabama, Citizens Voters, Inc., claims it is responsible for putting these amendments on the ballots in those states. While Citizens Voters’ name sounds like it is a good nonprofit, as a 501(c)(4), it has secret political donors. One cannot know who funds Citizen Voters and thus who is behind pushing these amendments with more than $8 million in dark money.
According to Citizen Voter’s website, the stated reason for Amendment 1 is that some cities in several other states allow non-citizens to vote. My understanding is that such measures are rare and only apply to voting for local school boards.
And why would a local government’s deciding that non-citizens can vote for local school boards be a state constitutional problem? Isn’t the good government practice to allow local control of local issues? And again, this issue does not even exist in Alabama.
The bigger question, which makes Amendment 1’s danger plain to see, is why eliminate the language protecting “every” citizen’s right to vote? For example, Amendment 1 could have proposed “Every citizen and only a citizen” instead of deleting “every” when adding “only a” citizen. Why not leave the “every” citizen language in the Alabama Constitution?
Amendment 1 could allow Alabama new state legislation to disenfranchise some Alabama citizens. Such a change would probably violate federal law. But Alabama has often had voting laws that violated federal law until a lawsuit forced the state of Alabama not to enforce the illegal state voting law.
The most recent similar law in Alabama might be 2011’s HB56, the anti-immigrant law. Both HB56 and Amendment 1 are Alabama state laws that out-of-state interests pushed on us. And HB56 has been largely blocked by federal courts after expensive lawsuits.
Alabama’s Nov. 3, 2020, ballot will have six constitutional amendments. On almost all ballots, Amendment 1 will be at the bottom right on the first page (front) of the ballot or will be at the top left on the second page (back) of the ballot.
Let’s keep in our state constitution our protection of every voters’ right to vote.
Based on Amendment 1’s having no practical benefit and its opening many opportunities for mischief, all Alabama voters are strongly urged to vote “no” on Amendment 1.
Opinion | Amendment 4 is an opportunity to clean up the Alabama Constitution
The 1901 but current Alabama Constitution has been amended about 950 times, making it by far the world’s longest constitution. The amendments have riddled the Constitution with redundancies while maintaining language and provisions — for example, poll taxes — that reflect the racist intent of those who originally wrote it.
A recompilation will bring order to the amendments and remove obsolete language. While much of this language is no longer valid, the language is still in the document and has been noted and used by other states when competing with Alabama for economic growth opportunities.
The need for recompilation and cleaning of Alabama’s Constitution has been long recognized.
In 2019, the Legislature unanimously adopted legislation, Amendment 4, to provide for its recompilation. Amendment 4 on the Nov. 3 general election ballot will allow the non-partisan Legislative Reference Service to draft a recompiled and cleaned version of the Constitution for submission to the Legislature.
While Amendment 4 prohibits any substantive changes in the Constitution, the LRS will remove duplication, delete no longer legal provisions and racist language, thereby making our Constitution far more easily understood by all Alabama citizens.
Upon approval by the Legislature, the recompiled Constitution will be presented to Alabama voters in November 2022 for ratification.
Amendment 4 authorizes a non-partisan, broadly supported, non-controversial recompilation and much-needed, overdue cleaning up of our Constitution.
On Nov. 3, 2020, vote “Yes” on Amendment 4 so the work can begin.
Opinion | Auburn Student Center named for Harold Melton, first Auburn SGA president of color
The year 1987 was a quiet one for elections across America but not at Auburn. That was the year Harold Melton, a student in international studies and Spanish, launched and won a campaign to become the first African American president of the Auburn Student Government Association, winning with more than 65 percent of the vote.
This was just the first of many important roles Harold Melton would play at Auburn and in an extraordinarily successful legal career in his home state of Georgia, where his colleagues on the Georgia Supreme Court elected him as chief justice.
Last week, the Auburn Board of Trustees unanimously named the Auburn student center for Justice Melton, the first building on campus that honors a person of color. The decision was reached as part of a larger effort to demonstrate Auburn’s commitment to diversity and inclusion.
In June, Auburn named two task forces to study diversity and inclusion issues. We co-chair the task force for the Auburn Board with our work taking place concurrently with that of a campus-based task force organized by President Jay Gogue. Other members of the Board task force are retired Army general Lloyd Austin, bank president Bob Dumas, former principal and educator Sarah B. Newton and Alabama Power executive Quentin P. Riggins.
These groups are embarking on a process that offers all Auburn stakeholders a voice, seeking input from students, faculty, staff, alumni, elected officials and more. It will include a fact-based review of Auburn’s past and present, and we will provide specific recommendations for the future.
We are committed to making real progress based on solid facts. Unlike other universities in the state, Auburn has a presence in all 67 counties through the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. Our review has included not only our campuses in Auburn and Montgomery but all properties across our state. To date, we have found no monuments or statues recognizing the history that has divided our country. We will continue our fact-finding mission with input from the academic and research community.
Our university and leadership are committed to doing the right thing, for the right reasons, at the right time. We believe now is the right time, and we are already seeing results.
In addition to naming the student center for the Honorable Harold Melton, we have taken steps to highlight the significant role played by Harold Franklin, the student who integrated Auburn. We are working to enhance the historical marker that pays tribute to Mr. Franklin, and we are raising its visibility in campus tours as we pay homage to his contributions as our first African American student. Last month, we awarded Mr. Franklin, now 86 and with a Ph.D., a long-overdue master’s degree for the studies he completed at Auburn so many years ago.
We likewise endorsed a student-led initiative creating the National Pan-Hellenic Council Legacy Plaza, which will recognize the contributions of Black Greek organizations and African American culture on our campus.
In the coming months, Auburn men and women will work together to promote inclusion to further enhance our student experience and build on our strength through diversity. The results of this work will be seen and felt throughout the institution in how we recruit our students, provide scholarships and other financial support and ensure a culture of inclusion in all walks of university life.
Our goal is to identify and implement substantive steps that will make a real difference at Auburn, impact our communities and stand the test of time.
Naming the student center for Justice Melton is but one example. In response to this decision, he said, “Auburn University has already given me everything I ever could have hoped for in a university and more. This honor is beyond my furthest imagination.”
Our job as leaders at Auburn is more than honoring the Harold Meltons and Harold Franklins who played a significant role in the history of our university. It is also to create an inclusive environment that serves our student body and to establish a lasting legacy where all members of the Auburn Family reach their fullest potential in their careers and in life.
Opinion | Alabama lags behind the nation in Census participation with deadline nearing
The United States Census is starting to wind down around the country with a Sept. 30 deadline for the national population to be completed. However, a United States District Court has recently ruled that the date may be extended another 30 days to allow more time for the census to take place.
Regardless of the deadline, Alabama has work to do when it comes to the census.
To date, the national average for participation around the country has been almost 65 percent for the census.
Unfortunately, Alabama residents are providing data to the census at a lower percentage, around some 61 percent of the state population.
There is already concern among state leaders that if that number does not reach above 70 percent, then the state will lose a seat in Congress, a vote in the electoral college and millions of federal dollars that come to the state every year.
The percentage of participation has varied widely around the state, from a high of 76 percent in Shelby County to a low of 36 percent in neighboring Coosa County.
State leaders are making a final push to request Alabama residents fill out the census in the last month before it is closed.
We will find out later this fall if Alabama passes the national average of participation in the census compared to other states to retain both its future representation and share of federal dollars.
In the meantime, Alabamians need to fill out their census forms.
The state is depending on it.