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State senator aims to emphasize risk assessment in parole considerations

Sen. Tom Whatley’s idea is to have parole guidelines similar to sentencing guidelines implemented by the state in 2013.

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As Alabama faces sharply declining numbers of paroles, changes are being proposed to put more emphasis on reports that evaluate an inmate’s risk to society.

Ohio Risk Assessment System reports are currently filed on each incarcerated person. ORAS reports are intended to score the individual’s risk of reoffending. Those reports serve to inform the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, but the members of the board are not required to take the results into consideration when deciding whether to grant parole.

“Under the current law in Alabama (ORAS reports) are part of determining whether someone should be paroled or not, but are not mandatory,” said Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. “For example, a risk assessment score of 1 means almost no risk of reoffending. The board can look at that and say they are still going to deny you parole. It’s not a mandatory device.”

State Sen. Tom Whatley, R-Auburn, is preparing a bill that he said “could bring some clarity to the parole situation.”

“(The bill) takes the ORAS report and hopefully makes it to where that can be something that the parole board will follow, and if they want to deviate away from it, give some good explanation why they are deviating from that,” Whatley said.

No bill has yet been filed, but Whatley said v

“We want to take the model for sentencing guidelines and look and see if we can’t adopt something like that for parole procedures,” Whatley said. 

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APR highlighted the case of Patrick Barnes in September, an incarcerated man who was denied parole despite an ORAS report that scored him at the lowest possible risk of reoffending and a recommendation from his parole officer.

Alabama’s parole grant rate between 2013 and 2018 increased from 30 percent to 53 percent, but in the following two years, and after the appointment of Pardons and Paroles Board chair Leigh Gwathney in October 2019, the parole grant rate dropped to 20 percent, according to the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles data. 

“We have a parole bureau headed by director Ward. They provide a service: they monitor and evaluate people within the system. We need to take those comments and recommendations to heart and should use those in conjunction with other materials to make decisions,” Whatley said.

There are currently many factors that can influence the board’s decision, Ward said.

“Under the current law there are multiple assessments you can use — underlying offense and multiple factors such as a victim’s family opposing,” Ward said. “That’s one of the issues a lot of folks are complaining about; they want more of a stated system determining who can be released and who can’t.”

The Code of Alabama puts parole decisions squarely in the hands of the board.

Alabama Code Section 15-22-26 states: “No prisoner shall be released on parole merely as a reward for good conduct or efficient performance of duties assigned in prison, but only if the Board of Pardons and Paroles is of the opinion that there is reasonable probability that, if such prisoner is released, he will live and remain at liberty without violating the law and that his release is not incompatible with the welfare of society.”

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The discussion comes after the Legislature took steps to address overcrowding in the state’s prisons by approving the construction of three new prisons. 

Although granting more paroles could provide relief to that overcrowding, Ward said it is important not to let overcrowding decide parole policy.

“I don’t think we should ever dictate parole by the overcrowding issue,” Ward said. “One of the roles of parole is because we have too many people in prison, but that doesn’t take into account the public safety factor. You don’t ever say ‘let’s just release a bunch of people’ because that’s a public safety nightmare. It is a tough balancing act but something that needs to be done. We need to have a more consistent system to how parole is governed in the state, how the determinations are made.”

Written By

Jacob Holmes is a reporter at the Alabama Political Reporter. You can reach him at [email protected]

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