By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY — Under new leadership, the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles approved parole in November for just less than 8% of inmates who came before it.
That’s a decline from earlier this year when it was paroling about 21 percent of the violent offenders and 46 percent of non-violent offenders it saw. Those numbers were a decline from previous years, Alabama Daily News previously reported.
Hearings were paused earlier this fall when Charlie Graddick, appointed by Gov. Kay Ivey, became executive director of the agency. Since resuming the hearings early this month, the board has denied parole in 104 of the 113 cases.
Graddick has maintained that parole should not be used to help lessen Alabama’s crowded prisons and that parole is not a given right for all inmates.
“People think that every inmate has the right to be considered for parole, they have the right to be calculated under a certain formula whether or not to be brought up to be considered for parole, but they’ve got to earn that parole right,” Graddick told reporters.
Particularly focused on violent offenders, the board sends out press releases detailing each day’s denials and the inmates’ past convictions.
It’s not just violent offenders the board says must finish their sentences behind bars.
April Clark Battle was one of five non-violent offenders denied parole on Tuesday. The 42-year-old was convicted on drug offenses in 2017.
Battle’s hearing lasted around eight minutes. Battles’s boyfriend, Eugene Taylor, spoke to the board in support of granting her parole. Board member Dwayne Spurlock asked Taylor why Battle’s prior probation had been revoked and if he knew if she had any more problems while in custody.
Taylor said she hadn’t had any problems and that she’s “probably participated in every program and took every class that they had.”
“I greatly feel that if she is let out, she will do the right thing,” Taylor said to the board. “She knows she can’t be out there on drugs because she’ll end up where she at, and I’m pretty sure she’ll turn her life around.”
Taylor told the board that Battle has a younger son she is eager to see and ill parents she would like to take care of.
“She has already lost her mother since being incarcerated and she is really concerned about her father and step-mother now,” Taylor told ADN.
The three-member board went into executive session for about three minutes about the case. Afterward, board chair Leigh Gwathney announced that the parole had been denied and that Battle would fulfill her sentence. Disciplinary issues while in custody, multiple prior parole violations, an inadequate plan for what she’d do upon release were all listed as reason to deny Battle’s parole, as was a concern that early release would “depreciate” the seriousness of her crime.
Taylor later told ADN that he was hoping Battle would be released early since her sentence ends in April 2020 and said she hasn’t done anything violent.
On that same day, the board approved the parole for John Richard Guffey who also was serving drug offense convictions. Some of the reasons cited for Guffey’s approval for parole were the completion of rehabilitative programs while in custody, a positive conduct record, a low-to-medium risk assessment for reoffending and his complete reentry plan.
Guffey’s was the only parole granted this week. Some of the 30 cases that were denied included sentences of second-degree rape, second-degree robbery, burglary and drug possession.
During a press conference earlier this month, Graddick said drug offenses should not be taken lightly when considered for parole and he thinks the media downplays the seriousness of drug offenses.
“How many times do you hear on the local news, ‘this person was only in jail for a drug offense.’” Graddick said. “I bet 90% of the crime in Alabama today has drugs involved in it. Drugs are driving crime like crazy in this state, so let’s not just look at it as ‘a drug offense.’”
Criminal justice and inmates-rights advocates are concerned about Graddick’s rhetoric on violent inmates and think he is over-generalizing and demonizing the population.
“As we reinforce this idea that by being a violent offender, that by having served time, that you still are not entitled to that day, that opportunity to actually receive parole, I think in many ways what the director is actually doing is de-legitimizing not only the role of the parole board but also the role of the corrections system,” said Dillon Nettles, a policy analyst for the ACLU and a member of the Alabamians for Fair Justice Coalition.
Terry Abbott, the board’s communication director, said that the board uses parole guidelines and state statute to decide parole. The guidelines consist of considering an inmate’s conviction, risk assessment, institutional behavior and participation in risk-reducing programming or treatment.
Nettles said that he thinks each case needs to be considered on an individual basis with the appropriate tools to ensure a proper assessment is made and that public safety is considered as well.
“I think [Graddick] is using, in many ways, these intimidation and fear tactics, both with the parole board and with the public to reinforce this attitude and idea that people who have served time for violent offenses are not worthy or capable of rehabilitation or able to return to society, and we know that’s not true,” Nettles told ADN.
The Pardons and Paroles came under scrutiny after Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was serving a life sentence and then paroled, killed three people in Guntersville in July 2018. That led Ivey to issue a moratorium last year on early paroles and later the state agreed to a $1 million settlement with the victims’ families.
The advocacy group Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) supported the legislation this year that allowed Ivey to name Graddick executive director of the agency, as well as appoint members recommended by legislative leadership.
VOCAL State Director Jeannette Grantham told ADN that she thinks the current board is much more “professional” and takes a longer amount of time to decide each case than the previous board did.
“It use to be before, you would be in there and out in maybe two minutes, and that was them deliberating and making a decision and then leaving,” Grantham said. “Now they’re deliberating for 10 or 15 minutes and that makes me feel better because the other times when they would do it in a few minutes, they had their mind made up undoubtedly before they got in there.”
Victims have told Grantham that they feel listened to with the new board, which Grantham says is very important for both the victims and the defendant’s side as well.
“It’s not an easy thing to go in front of that parole board,” Grantham said. “The inmate’s family didn’t ask for this, it’s not their fault and they should be listened to. What they say should have merit just like our side does.”
Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, who serves on the Governor’s study group for criminal justice reform, told ADN that he respects the board’s decision-making process, but worries about the need for the press releases on paroles being denied.
“I do question why we see the constant press releases coming out defining each and every case, they’re not supposed to be a publicity agency, they’re supposed to be an agency that looks to determine whether someone should be granted a pardon or parole,” Ward said.
Ward said he understands why there may be less paroles now because Alabama’s prison population is comprised of more violent than non-violent offenders. According to ADOC’s monthly report for August, the violent offender population comprises of 65.1% of the prison population.
A violent offense under Alabama statute can be anything from capital murder, assault, kidnapping, rape, domestic violence, burglary, intimidating a witness, child abuse, human trafficking and sexual abuse. A non-violent offense is any crime that isn’t classified as a violent offense.
The governor’s prison study commission meets again on Dec. 4 and will hear comments from the public.
Parole hearings resume Dec. 3.