The thing about the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Parole, said new director Cam Ward on Wednesday, is that in the past its decisions have sometimes been dictated by which side was most outraged.
For example, for years, there was a push to grant more paroles because of outrage about overcrowding in Alabama’s prisons, so the parole board obliged. Last year, that changed following complaints from district attorneys and others who were outraged that some dangerous criminals had been released far too early, so the board basically stopped paroles altogether.
The controversies brought public interest. And where there’s public interest, you will almost always find the world’s greatest pandering body — the Alabama Legislature.
In the wake of the outrage over violent criminals receiving early paroles, the Alabama Legislature — a body in which Ward served as a state senator — got involved. It went about like you’d expect.
Which brings us to Jerry Lett.
A decorated military veteran and former first responder, Lett was imprisoned on drug charges in 2018. He made a few mistakes in the years after his service, but by all accounts his prison sentence had served as a wake-up call.
During his time in jail, he was a model prisoner. There were no disciplinary marks on his record and he completed a number of educational courses.
When he came up for parole in 2020, Lett also had plenty of support. His parole application was supported by every corrections officer who supervised him, according to the Southern Center for Human Rights, which represented Lett during his parole hearing.
Lett became one of the very few prisoners granted parole during the abysmal tenure of former Pardons and Parole director Charlie Graddick.
Since his release, Lett has been an equally exceptional parolee. He has no negative marks on his record, is gainfully employed and is in close contact with his family, including a daughter who is a security officer with the U.S. Air Force.
But he’s going back to prison anyway. Because the Parole Board messed up. And because the Alabama Legislature took a wrecking ball to a problem that a tack hammer would have solved.
In response to those early parole releases that I mentioned earlier — the ones that had the governor and DAs and lawmakers all up in arms — our Legislature, never one to miss an opportunity to prove how tough it is on crime, inserted new minimum sentence mandates in the law.
Under the new requirements, Lett was to serve a minimum of five years. He had served just over two when the Alabama Department of Corrections and Pardons and Paroles — not yet applying the new requirements — determined he was eligible for parole.
“A lot of times, in situations like this, the legislature’s tendency is to over-correct and change the law,” Ward said. “And I say that as someone who is just as guilty here. I was in the senate at that time. I voted in favor of this change. And the real binder here is that the law says ‘you shall serve …’ this time.”
Doesn’t matter that someone screwed up. Doesn’t matter what the facts of the case are.
Lett is going back in the system.
Even though everyone — and I do mean everyone — that he’s come in contact with, including Ward, believes he doesn’t belong in the system any longer.
That’s the consequence of broad mandates from a body that is totally removed from the day-to-day activities of our justice system. This is just one of the numerous examples of the harm that comes from removing the ability of judges and parole boards to make decisions on a case-by-case basis.
This is also a prominent reason why our prisons are overrun — we have way too many people in them who don’t belong there.
As for Lett, there is some hope. Ward said it was his hope that Lett would be placed in a community corrections program instead of returned to prison. That would allow Lett to serve his mandatory minimum but also return home to his family every night, and lead a somewhat normal life. In addition, it would also allow Lett to get much needed medical treatment for a variety of serious ailments.
“It’s my sincere hope that we can do some things from an administrative standpoint that would rectify this,” Ward said. “I think that’s very possible. It’s the right thing.”