The Alabama House of Representatives this week passed House Bill 380 (HB 380), which would give the governor more control over the state parole board and set minimum sentences that incarcerated people must serve before they can be released on parole.
Alabama has a prison overcrowding crisis on its hands, and the Alabama House of Representatives’ decision on Thursday represents a refusal to solve or even acknowledge this crisis.
HB 380 is not based on any data analysis of how the current parole system operates and will unjustifiably entangle politics into the operating of an apolitical board. The Board of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) must remain an independent entity and should not be a cabinet-level position. Evidence-based policy must guide state leaders on parole.
When state leaders imposed an early parole moratorium last October, the month before Election Day, the SPLC began a data analysis to answer the question: Is there validity to the idea that the BPP was releasing violent people en masse?
The data showed us that of the first 1,005 people paroled in 2016, after the reforms in 2015’s SB 67 were fully in place, 119 were back in Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) custody last fall, as the moratorium was put in place. Of those 119 people, only 22 were back in custody for so-called violent offenses. Ten of those 22 were in for burglary, a crime with little violent element. Nearly two dozen of the 119 were back in custody for drug possession, indicating a need for treatment instead of incarceration.
Thus, the answer we found was simple: The parole system has generally worked as intended, letting people out of ADOC facilities who do not pose a public safety threat to communities.
After ADOC and the state of Alabama were instructed just last month by the U.S. Department of Justice to immediately take steps to consider how to safely realign people in men’s prisons back into local oversight, Alabama’s leaders in the House of Representatives have decided to exacerbate the ongoing crisis.
Incarcerated people in Alabama prisons have already been found guilty and sentenced in a court of law. Parole is not meant to be a second sentencing hearing to tack on additional time to serve; rather, its focus should be on whether people have been sufficiently rehabilitated – based on the evidence available to BPP since incarceration – so that they can be re-integrated into the community safely. The evidence we have reviewed indicates this is how BPP is operating today.
This bill, if passed by the Alabama Senate and signed by the governor, will have the immediate effect of limiting paroles, increasing overcrowding, and increasing hopelessness and desperation for people under the state’s care.
Without the incentive of reentering society, incarcerated people are more likely to act out in prisons, and our state’s prisons will continue to be among the most dangerous for incarcerated people and guards in the country.
Reporting contribution by SPLC's Will Tucker and Kathryn Casteel
Photo by Dave Martin/AP Images