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Alabama parole board returns from hiatus to deny parole in a vast majority of May cases

Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) granted only 15 paroles out of 160 cases in May, despite persistent calls from advocates to reduce the state’s prison population in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The findings from an SPLC analysis of 160* parole hearings from May, found that of the 15 people granted parole a majority were white, yet over half of potential parolees were Black. The SPLC also examined the BPP’s designation of some potential parolees as “violent offenders,” a status that is always included with the board’s hearing results. The findings revealed that nearly one third of those deemed “violent” were given the designation either because of offenses categorized as violent by state law – but in reality have little or no violent element – or prior prison terms.

“A lot of [the parole process] seems to be unknown to me at this point in time,” said Matthew Bailey, an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama, who specializes in parole and post-conviction cases. “Because they’re also revoking people.”

Of the 37 people the board revoked parole for in May, 13 were for technical violations only, which can be as simple as a missed appointment with a parole officer or a failed drug test.

“It doesn't seem like they’re taking their responsibility to try and protect inmates very seriously if they're actually just increasing the prison population, rather than letting people out and giving them an opportunity to try and be productive citizens,” said Bailey.

The SPLC’s analysis revealed that 51% of the potential parolees in May were Black and 47% were white. The breakdown nearly matches the racial makeup of people in ADOC’s jurisdictional population, according to the most recent data available. But of the 15 people granted parole in May, 11 were white and four were Black.

In other words, potential white parolees were nearly three times more likely to be granted parole than their Black counterparts, but fewer than 10% of potential paroles were granted overall.

“The racial disparity doesn't surprise me because white offenders tend to have more resources, so they tend to be able to hire advocates or tend to be in a better position to be able to be released,” said Bailey.

Avoiding a ‘public health catastrophe’

In March, the bureau responded to the pandemic by canceling or rescheduling hundreds of hearings through mid-April, citing that the state’s open meetings law blocked the board from holding teleconferences or video hearings. But advocates and law professors urged Gov. Kay Ivey to use her executive power to resume parole hearings, specifically for people over 50 or with compromised immune systems, to avoid a “public health catastrophe” within the state prison system.

In mid-April, Ivey issued an order that authorized the bureau to conduct meetings telephonically and resume hearings in mid-May. But with so few paroles granted once hearings finally resumed, it seemed the bureau returned to business as usual.

A report by the ACLU of Alabama released in April highlighted a parole backlog, with over 4,000 individuals currently eligible for parole in ADOC custody. With only 133 people granted parole in 866 cases, the report noted a grant rate of just 15% over the past five months. The ACLU’s findings pointed to the bureau administration as a contributing factor, and warned that prison overcrowding could worsen if the trend continues.

Even before the pandemic, Alabama’s parole bureau came under scrutiny after former Alabama Attorney General Charles Graddick was named director in September. Although the U.S. Department of Justice put the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) on notice last year for violating the constitutional rights of the people incarcerated there, Graddick has often said it is not his agency’s job to reduce prison overcrowding.

Lyn Head, a former top prosecutor in Tuscaloosa and chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles from 2018 to 2019, noted that relatively few hearings were set in the first place and the small number makes it difficult to determine whether the results are fair. But, she said, “We know that the prison population is more Black than white.”

Head estimated that when she was on the board from 2016 to 2019, the trio of members would consider 200 parole cases each week during which they held hearings. “I don't understand why they're having so few hearings,” she said. “Two of three of those board members and I were able to handle 70 parole hearings in a day.”

Head told the SPLC she resigned from the board last year because the bureau moved away from evidence-based practices that “actually reduce recidivism.” Instead, under Graddick, the bureau has placed a heavy emphasis on how many people it has determined to be “violent offenders” remain in prison after parole hearings are held.

A look at ‘violent offenders’

The SPLC’s analysis of the May data revealed that of the 159 people with parole hearings in May, 102 were determined by BPP to be “violent offenders.” Of those, 63 were Black and 37 were white. Two were of other races.

Just two people determined to be “violent offenders” by BPP were granted parole in May. One was Black and one was white.

The SPLC also examined why each person was designated a “violent offender” by the bureau. The data revealed that nearly one third of them were designated as such because of a conviction from a prior prison term, or were convicted of a crime that advocates believe is misclassified as a violent offense.

There were 15 people designated as “violent offenders” solely because of an offense from a prior term, yet the offense they are currently incarcerated for, and thus under consideration for parole, is classified as nonviolent. In one case, a man denied parole is currently serving a sentence for forgery, but was designated as a violent offender by BPP due to a single first degree burglary charge from 1999.

The bureau also considered 17 people violent because they were convicted of burglary in the third degree, which has little violent element, or for violations of the sex offender registration law, which can be crimes as simple as loitering or failure to file paperwork in time.

In the same month, the board also denied parole for 44 people who were designated as “non-violent offenders.” A majority (77%) of those people are incarcerated for drug offenses.

“It's difficult because the board and the prisons rely upon methods that don't work for everybody,” said Bailey. “They can require you to go to AA or NA, which does work for some people, but for many others, it doesn't. On top of that I mean, it's easier to get drugs in prison than it is outside of prison.”

Head, the former BPP board chair, pointed out that despite the BPP’s emphasis on violence, violent offenses are set by statute.

“Criminal background is something that is to be considered [in parole hearings], but...it's not the Bureau’s job to say, ‘This is a violent offender,’” she said.

Finally, the SPLC’s findings reveal that by granting so few people parole in such a small number of hearings, the BPP is leaving many incarcerated who might otherwise be released as the coronavirus pandemic intensifies in Alabama and threatens to spread further into prisons.

Many remain in large overcrowded facilities where it is all but impossible to follow the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s social distancing guidelines. Out of 100 hearings for people held at ADOC’s 16 close- and medium-security facilities in May, all but one of which are over capacity, three people were granted parole and the other 97 were denied.

Those in prison age 65 and over are at an elevated risk for developing severe cases of COVID-19. During the same period, six such people had parole hearings and all but one were denied.

“Especially in this time, when we know that [the prisons] are so crowded, why not throw an extra 40 people on a docket, and work five days instead of three to see if we can give those people relief?” Head said. “Not to air on the side of granting, even, but just to try to consider more.”

The board also chose not to grant parole to people who have already served long sentences. All 49 of those who had hearings in May who have served more than 10 years in ADOC custody were denied. The BPP also denied parole to 64 of the 69 people in the dataset who had served more than half of their sentence, and all but one of the 48 people who had served more than three quarters of their sentence.

Overall, the rationale behind the BPP’s decisions in May is unclear. According to Bailey, attorneys were mostly in the dark about the reasoning behind the denials, as they only have BPP meeting minutes to reference, which provide little, if any, insight.

“I think that they’re being overly cautious and thinking of worst-case scenarios when looking at the inmates. In the past, they have denied people for not taking classes that are not available at the facilities they’re at or that they don’t qualify for,” said Bailey. “[The bureau] could really give us feedback for the inmates or to their families about what they're looking for, rather than denying people for whatever reason that they can come up with.”

*Note: One person among the 160 cases was denied parole in May, but was not included in the SPLC’s overall analysis because their offense was committed as a juvenile, which omits their information from ADOC’s search registry where the SPLC gathered the data for this analysis.

Photo by AP Images/Kim Chandler