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Hundreds of people denied parole in Alabama as pandemic worsened

White people more than twice as likely as Black counterparts to be granted parole in June

As coronavirus began to spread in Alabama prisons earlier this year, Willie Cribbs was imprisoned in Bullock Correctional Facility near Union Springs, Alabama, fearful of the growing threat of COVID-19 to the 350 people in his cramped, foul-smelling dormitory.

Bunks were about six inches apart, making it impossible to socially distance. “You could maybe walk sideways through them,” he said.

But Cribbs, 62, was lucky. Under Alabama’s mandatory release law, which the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) uses to curtail incarceration for certain people, he was allowed to go home to his sister, where he found relative safety from the virus and a fried catfish dinner upon his arrival.

Hundreds of parole-eligible people are still incarcerated, however, and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) continues to be a roadblock to their release amid a pandemic, where experts say granting parole to more people is critical to preventing mass deaths.

What’s more, the BPP is beset with problems ranging from racial injustice to financial woes, the SPLC has found. In June, white people were more than twice as likely as Black people to be granted parole, nearly twice the racial disparity in May 2020, according to an SPLC data analysis. The board denied parole to hundreds of people, including some who may soon be released anyway under mandatory release, which requires the strictest level of supervision BPP provides. It’s a decision that costs the agency more time and money at a time when its spending has left officials seeking more funds from the Legislature.

Racial disparity

Cribbs was one of 452 people with parole hearings in June analyzed by the SPLC. Although more people were paroled last month than in May 2020, white people were 2.6 times more likely than Black people to be granted parole in June.

Overall, the board granted parole in 88 cases for a grant rate of 19%, according to the SPLC’s review of data. (In 22 cases, people appear to have been scheduled for parole but no result from a hearing appears in BPP’s records.)

That’s nearly double the grant rate in May, when the Parole Board reconvened after cancelling hearings as the pandemic began to spread earlier in the Spring. That month, the board granted parole to just 15 people, 11 of them white and four of them Black.

Of the total 474 hearings set for June, 45% of potential parolees were Black and 52% were white.

All told, the board denied parole to 350 people. Most will remain in prison, even as the pandemic continues and the number of COVID-19 deaths among the prison population rises. The latest numbers produced by ADOC indicate that nearly 600 incarcerated people have been tested and 138 have tested positive. Two ADOC employees and 13 incarcerated people are reported to have died from COVID-19.

Mandatory release

But a few of those 350 denied parole may yet see their incarceration end soon through mandatory release, as Cribbs did.

Mandatory release allows for prisoners to serve the remainder of their sentence outside of prison before their minimum release date. The law passed the Alabama Legislature in 2015 as a provision of that year’s criminal justice reform bill designed to tackle persistent overcrowding and understaffing in the state’s prisons.

ADOC officials determine who is eligible and send that information to BPP. Then, BPP officials meet with the eligible people to prepare them for release and supervision. Once a person leaves prison via mandatory release, they are supervised by BPP officers until the end of their sentence. The law requires intensive supervision.

There is an advantage to the BPP granting parole to people who will soon be due for mandatory release, according to Lyn Head, the former chair of the Board of Pardons and Paroles from 2018 to 2019. Not every person who is eligible for mandatory release needs intensive supervision; parole gives the BPP the opportunity to supervise those people with less intrusion and less of a burden on parole officers.

In June, the board denied parole to 22 people who fit certain qualifications for mandatory release based on the length of their sentences and their minimum release dates, the SPLC’s data show. Additionally, none of them committed the offenses for which they are incarcerated before Jan. 30, 2016, and none committed sex offenses – other qualifications in the mandatory release law.

“We would grant parole in the majority of those cases,” Head said of her time on the board. “There’s an advantage for the agency to just go ahead and parole them.”

Instead, by denying parole, the board chose the more burdensome route in these cases. “Mandatory release cases are ... subject to the highest frequency of collateral contacts, i.e., probation and parole field office reports, home visits, employment verifications, etc.,” the BPP’s website reads. Parole officers may only take on 25 mandatory release cases at a time, according to the release.

It’s also burdensome for someone like Cribbs, who each week must meet with a BPP officer and be charged a $50 fee. Cribbs’ case is particularly perplexing: He went home on mandatory release, but the BPP still reviewed his parole case – and even granted his parole. Yet, it doesn’t change his circumstance. He’s still under mandatory release and faces intensive supervision – and its fees – until the end of his sentence in September.

“I don’t see why I should have to do that,” he said. “I think I should be free.”

A plea for state funds

As the board denied parole to hundreds in June, including those due for mandatory release, agency officials sounded an alarm: A 43% cut in appropriations by the state Legislature to BPP will lead to higher caseloads for parole officers, the bureau announced.

The agency called for the funds to be replaced even as the board elected to use more resources on intensive supervision for people who don’t need it, but may be subject to it nonetheless on mandatory release.

And, in the same June 19 press release, BPP announced it had spent much of a large sum of money from the Legislature that went unused for years. State financial records show the agency has rolled over tens of millions of dollars since fiscal year 2018 in unused appropriations.

In fiscal year 2015, the BPP supplemented its budget with $467,541 from the state general fund that it hadn’t spent during the previous year. This “rollover amount” grew every year to reach $25 million in fiscal year 2020.

In the same time frame, the agency’s total appropriations grew from $27 million in fiscal year 2015 to $48 million in fiscal year 2020. For this fiscal year, with the $25 million in carryover funds, BPP had $86 million available.

But “those carryover funds have now either been spent or encumbered, with only a relatively small percentage left for fiscal year 2021,” the agency reported in the June 19 release.

Under Director Charles Graddick, the BPP acquired equipment, including new vehicles for officers “that are appropriate for the terrain they must navigate to perform their jobs” and are outfitted with “police lights, protective compartments in the back seat for transporting offenders, computers and other technology,” according to the release. The bureau also renovated buildings and relocated offices.

This left $13 million in carryover funds, according to the release. “Even with the remaining carryover … the Bureau will still be about $20 million short of needed funding beginning Oct. 1,” according to the release.

Meanwhile, Cribbs is struggling with his own financial issue: He cannot pay his mandatory release fees, which could lead to a technical violation. “It’s a huge burden,” he said.

Photo by Brynn Anderson / AP Images