By CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News
MONTGOMERY, Ala. – A new bill pre-filed in the Alabama Legislature would create a temporary second pardons and parole board with the hopes of reducing the amount of backlog in parole hearings that has been created by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Rep. Jim Hill, R-Odenville, is the sponsor for House Bill 92 and he’s hopeful a second board would help the state’s strained prison system.
“According to some of the data I have seen, there are several thousand individuals within our system who are eligible to have the hearing, and that does not necessarily mean they should be paroled, but before you can be paroled you have to have the hearing,” Hill told Alabama Daily News. “I think they ought to be able to have the hearing, see what their situation is, and if it is safe and feasible to place them on parole under a type of supervision as opposed to confinement.”
This temporary board would only serve from July 2021 till July 2023 and its three members would be appointed by the lieutenant governor, the Senate president pro tem and the speaker of the House.
Hill is a former circuit court judge in St. Clair County and currently chairs the House Judiciary Committee that considers criminal justice bills.
The permanent three-member parole board makes decisions on paroles and pardons for all of Alabama’s inmates and board members are appointed by the governor.
Parole hearings were halted in March over concerns about the coronavirus but resumed in May. Hearings are now being conducted virtually.
Newly appointed Director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Cam Ward, told ADN he was supportive of the bill but says funding the support staff along with the new board is critical in order to conduct more hearings.
“The attorneys help provide all the information and research into the cases for the parole board and their decision making, and if you’re going to do this then you have to make sure the support staff is there for them as well,” Ward said.
Ward estimates that the cost for an attorney and one support person to help the special parole board could cost around $170,000 to $180,000.
Hill’s bill does not specify funding support personnel, but only the three board members. Hill said if the board decides they need to hire additional support personnel then that should be left up to the agency to decide.
“I don’t want to get into a position where we tell them exactly what they need to do and how they need to do it,” Hill said.
Ward also said having legal support personnel is a problem that even the current board is facing and he plans on taking that into account in upcoming budget requests to the Legislature.
Alabama has created a special parole board before to deal with prison crowding issues.
Former Alabama Gov. Bob Riley set up a special parole board in 2003 that lasted till 2006 to speed up the release of eligible inmates and ease the stress on the state’s overcrowded system, the Associated Press reported.
At the time, then-Alabama Department of Corrections Commissioner Richard Allen said the special parole board helped keep inmate numbers from rising within prisons.
The ACLU of Alabama’s Smart Justice group released data in September that showed an unprecedented backlog of parole-eligible inmates in Alabama’s system, partly due to the halt in hearings but also from the very low rate of parole approvals.
The data showed that after eleven months into fiscal year 2020, the board had scheduled 2,041 hearings granting 435, compared to 2019’s 4,270 hearings and 1,337 granted paroles.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed suit against Alabama earlier this month claiming that ADOC is failing to prevent violence in men’s prisons and violates the Eighth and Fourteenth Amendment rights of inmates.
Hill said he hopes the lawsuit creates a sense of urgency in the Legislature to pass needed prison reform and criminal justice reform bills like his.
“What is incumbent upon us to do, in working with the governor and looking at the situation that we’re in, what can we do to alleviate the issues that we have and I think that this is a way, not the only way, but a way to address at least some of them,” Hill said.
The regular legislative session begins on Feb. 2.