England: Legislature resists common sense parole board reform

England: Legislature resists common sense parole board reform
By Representative Chris England

Once again, Alabama’s prison system is overcrowded, deadly, and the subject of a lawsuit from the Department of Justice because of these abhorrent conditions, and to make matters worse, our current parole board is only contributing to the problem by declining to grant paroles at record numbers. While it may not be the parole board’s responsibility to solve overcrowding, our criminal justice system is dependent on having a functioning parole system that can maintain public safety while supporting rehabilitation and re-entry. But under the current Parole Board Chair Leigh Gwathney’s leadership, that has meant denying parole to practically everyone, which is particularly noticeable with the sharp decline in parole grants for Black Alabamians.

“Tough-on-crime” politicians like Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall would have you believe this increase in parole denials is necessary to maintain public safety and the board’s independence. But let’s be real.

This isn’t about public safety. If it was, Steve Marshall would understand why House Bill 57, a bill I sponsored, would actually improve public safety in paroles because it would require the guidelines that the board uses to be formally validated. This is an important review process that would determine how well the risk assessment can predict the risk of reoffending, but which has been unfortunately overlooked.

At a time when the Legislature needs to be addressing this crisis with meaningful solutions, HB57 is a good first step. However, session is set to end this week, before the House or Senate have had a chance to take a vote on this important legislation.

Passing this bill would have helped ensure the parole guidelines were validated and that the board was making decisions that are based on evidence, not emotions, in order to ensure their decisions are in the best interest of public safety for our communities. Why would leaders that believe in law and order oppose something that would strengthen accountability and improve public safety?

And this isn’t about the board’s independence. While it should be concerning to us all that the board isn’t following their own guidelines, this bill would not force them to grant parole to anyone. All HB57 would have done is require them to explain in writing when their decision differs from the guidelines. So for example, when the guidelines recommended granting release to 84% of the applicants in December 2021, but the board only granted release to 15%, they would have to provide documentation for each applicant represented in that gap.

As a government agency, this is what accountability and transparency are supposed to look like. We also can get a better understanding of why the most precipitous drop in paroles has been for people incarcerated at minimum-security facilities. This is troubling considering that the primary purpose of ADOC’s work centers and work releases are to “assist selected inmates in preparing for release and to aid in making the transition from a structured institutional environment back to the community,” according to ADOC’s administrative regulations.

Furthermore, this bill would create a temporary bipartisan policy development council to review and update the guidelines, which would be dissolved at the end of 2024 so the board’s independence would be preserved. All this bill does is allow the legislature to do our job, too. That way, the parole board can operate fairly, consistently, and independently, and in a manner that would actually improve their ability to assess risk to public safety.

Nevertheless, Steve Marshall’s statement last month overlooks all of this, claiming that this is how it’s supposed to work to keep Alabama safe. Rather than seeking solutions to our state’s growing challenges from over-incarceration and a lack of support for rehabilitation and re-entry, the Attorney General and other leaders want to point the finger, but the numbers speak for themselves. If a record low number of paroles, a lack of transparency from the parole board, and Alabamians getting a billion-dollar bill for new state prisons is what he means by the “system working how it’s supposed to,” then don’t be fooled that this has anything to do with your safety.

Representative Chris England (HD-70) represents Tuscaloosa County in the Alabama House of Representatives.