The number of pardons granted by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has dropped significantly this year, according to a recent report by the ACLU of Alabama’s Smart Justice campaign.
Between October 2020 and May 2021, the three-member board — led by former prosecutor Leigh Gwathney — denied 78 percent of pardon applications, according to the report, which reviewed data regularly released by the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.
In comparison, during the previous fiscal year, the board granted 79 percent of pardon applications.
“This board is engaged in denying record numbers of incarcerated Alabamians release from prison through parole, and now we see them applying the same categorical denials to citizens seeking a pardon,” said JaTaune Bosby, executive director of ACLU of Alabama, in a statement.
“It is unconscionable to block the restoration of civil rights to deserving citizens after they have paid their debt to society,” Bosby said. “Denying pardons prevents people from voting, and in many cases from seeking better employment or housing. We strongly condemn the recent actions by the board and encourage Alabama leaders to address this unfolding crisis.”
Applying for a pardon is the only avenue in Alabama for a person to have their civil and political rights restored after completing their criminal sentence, which includes the right to vote and the right to own a firearm.
Cam Ward, director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, told the ACLU of Alabama that he acknowledged the recent drop in pardon and parole grants but that the bureau is not involved in how the board votes.
“The way the board is set up, they don’t tell us any reasons for their decision,” Ward said. “We get a spreadsheet at the end of each day and that is it.”
The reason for the substantial drop in granted pardons was unclear Tuesday. APR’s questions to the board members, sent to the bureau’s spokesman, weren’t answered as of Tuesday afternoon. The report’s author, journalist Beth Shelburne, also sent questions to board members but didn’t receive answers.
The report quotes Montgomery-based attorney Andrew Skier, who has for 23 years represented those seeking pardons before the board.
“We’re used to the pendulum swinging back and forth within a certain range, but I’ve never seen anything like this,” Skier told the ACLU of Alabama. “It’s like we’re redlining in one direction. I don’t understand the purpose in denying these people. I don’t understand how someone who calls themselves a Christian can put their name behind this.”
The report notes that the board does not have to disclose why they turned someone down for a pardon, and there’s no way for a person denied to appeal the decision.