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Victim Notification Law Plagues Alabama’s Parole System

by Kevin Bliss

Admitting it is an “uncalled-for-situation,” Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (BPP) Director Charles Graddick announced on September 9, 2019 that all future parole hearings were being postponed in order to comply with a new law that took effect the first of that month. The law, signed in June by Governor Kay Ivey, requires notice to victims 30 days prior to a prisoner’s pardon or parole hearing.

The new statute followed the July 2018 murders of seven-year-old Colton Lee and his great grandmother, Marie Martin, as well as Martin’s neighbor, Martha Reliford, by Alabama parolee Jimmy Spencer. Though Spencer’s previous victims had been notified of his parole hearings in 2008 and 2013, they were not notified of the one that sent him to a Birmingham halfway house in January 2018, from which he walked away three weeks later. The police arrested him on drug charges in June 2018 but he was released after his parole officer failed to respond to their inquiries.

Former BPP Director Eddie Cook had opposed the new law, which tightens restrictions on the agency and creates additional oversight. Cook and two subordinates were placed on leave while state officials investigated allegations of “malfeasance,” including inappropriate solicitation of state employees through e-mail to take a stance against the law. Cook and Assistant Executive Director Chris Norman are reportedly using saved leave time to reach retirement and will not return to work. BPP Personnel Director Belinda Johnson, who was also placed on leave, is awaiting a hearing to determine her employment future.

When the notification statute took effect on September 1, 2019, Governor Ivey appointed Graddick, a former Mobile Circuit Court judge, as the BPP’s new director. Even though he was known as “lock ‘em up Charlie” due to his tough-on-crime reputation while on the bench, Ivey promised that Graddick would be “fair-minded.” After placing Cook, Norman and Johnson on leave, Graddick postponed 862 parole hearings scheduled through October 2019 because the BPP had no mechanism to ensure victims were receiving the required 30-day notice.

“The Board of Operations division is unable to assure me that the docket complies with the law,” he said. “Last week we had to postpone 113 hearings. We’ll resume parole hearings as soon as we’re sure legal requirements have been met. We’re working hard to learn if the dockets pass muster legally. It could mean notifying up to 700 people. Addresses must be verified. It’s going to take a few weeks.” He added the situation was a “hot mess.”

In addition to the forced departures of Cook and his two subordinates, BPP chairwoman Lyn Head resigned in October 2019 and was replaced by Leigh Gwathney, an assistant attorney general. Spokesperson Skip Tucker called the former composition of the board a “snarl of cataclysmic proportion.”

“The priority is to resume parole hearings as soon as Judge Graddick is assured that the agency and the hearings are up to compliance with the new law. Anything else would be facetious,” he said.

The number of parole grants had already fallen dramatically after Governor Ivey issued an October 2018 moratorium on releasing prisoners before their parole eligibility dates. From 267 parole grants in June 2018, the number fell to just 80 one year later. While he acknowledged the overcrowding problem in Alabama’s prison system, which operates at 182% capacity, Tucker said the answer is not to start handing out parole “like candy.” An estimated date to resume parole hearings was set in early November 2019.

Since Graddick took over as the BPP’s director he has conducted employee training on the new law and instituted safety upgrades for parole officers. The agency also has a new website that features an “absconder” alert.

Civil rights advocates expressed concern about prisoners who could have been granted parole during the time their hearings were postponed. Beth Shelburne with the Campaign for Smart Justice – a project of the ACLU – said parole “is one of the only remedies available for people that are stuck in the system, and to put a stop to it is sending us in the wrong direction.”

Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center, added that parole was an important mechanism for release in the prison system, and that postponing hearings could have a devastating effect on overcrowding in state prisons. She said she hoped Governor Ivey and Graddick “were taking into account how important parole is not just to the prison crisis but also to the future of incarcerated people.”

Huntsville attorney Mark McDaniel, who has argued many state criminal cases, noted “the nature of the crime is what the board of pardons and paroles in most states consider.” He said a shortage of parole officers means one is sometimes saddled with thousands of cases.

“You say, well, why didn’t they go check on where this guy was living? They’ve barely got enough time to even go through the files for new cases they’re getting, much less the people that are on parole,” McDaniel remarked.

The state legislature has increased the 2020 appropriation for the Alabama Department of Corrections by $40 million, but it is unclear how much of that funding will be allocated to the BPP. The agency is moving to a new Montgomery location, one that both saves rental costs and provides more free parking for visitors attending hearings, which are scheduled to begin at the new location in January 2020.

Assuming that the BPP is in compliance with the notification law by then, that is. 

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Sources: pardons.state.al.us, waaytv.com, theappeal.org, whnt.com, mynbc15.xom, abc3340.com