A bill intended to reform Alabama’s parole system has gained broad support among law enforcement across the state and in Mobile County, where prosecutors say 40 inmates they convicted were released from prison during the first three months of 2019.
“There’s a common misconception that our prisons are full of low-level drug offenders,” Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said. “The bottom line is we don’t have enough room in state prisons for violent offenders, and [the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles] is just letting them go. These are defendants who, in some cases, have 18, 20, 30 prior charges.”
In recent months, Rich has been frequently outspoken about the parole board’s decision to release certain inmates who were convicted locally. Her office has also used a grant to hire additional victim service officers to attend parole hearings, in most cases to oppose parole.
Speaking to Lagniappe, Rich said she’s been sending someone to Montgomery “just about every day for the past four months,” and it does appear several inmates from Mobile have been up for parole so far this year — including many who were ultimately released.
Based on data provided by Rich’s office, 147 Mobile County inmates came before the board between January and March, 40 of whom were paroled (about 27 percent). That includes defendants charged with violent offenses such as murder, manslaughter, arson and robbery, but also others in prison for nonviolent crimes such as drug possession, distribution, theft or fraud.
The length of the original sentences served also varied widely, with some serving almost all of their time and others completing only a fraction of it. It’s worth noting that, based on the data, most inmates who were paroled significantly early were in prison for nonviolent offenses.
Rich specifically highlighted the board’s recent decision to release Melvin McElroy back into the community earlier this month. After serving 19 years of a life sentence for a shooting in 2000 that left one victim with a gunshot wound to the face, McElroy was released in early April.
According to Rich, McElroy shouldn’t have even been considered for parole until at least 2031. She also said McElroy’s disciplinary record in prison should have been a red flag.
“He’s had 32 disciplinary infractions, most of which were for indecent exposure or failure to obey direct orders. In 2017 — just two years ago – he sexually assaulted another inmate,” Rich said. “If he was a model prisoner, or showed signs of change, maybe we’d consider him as someone who needs to go back into the community. Instead, he’s been wreaking havoc in the state prison system for years and they paroled him anyway.”
Concerns about the parole board aren’t isolated to Mobile County, either.
Governor Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall took on the issue in 2018, which led to a brief moratorium on all early parole hearings and ultimately pushed the board to develop a “corrective action plan” in response to criticisms from their respective offices.
The issue also gained statewide attention after a triple murder in Guntersville last July that left two women and a 7-year-old boy dead. The suspect, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, was a violent offender who’d been paroled early from life sentence a few months before the killings.
This year, Marshall has helped draft and push a bill introduced by Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, that aims to codify the board’s existing policies on parole consideration dates and give the governor’s office more influence of how board members are appointed.
Under the current law, defendants who commit violent offenses can be eligible for parole once they’ve served one third of their sentences or spent 10 years in prison, whichever comes first. Senate Bill 42 would require defendants convicted of henious crimes like murder, rape, sexual abuse and human trafficking to serve 85 percent of a sentence to become eligible for parole.
There are already similar parameters the parole board follows in its own policies, which is why the more substantive — and controversial — issue presented by Ward’s bill is the restructuring of the parole board’s leadership and how it’s selected.
“The process by which the Governor appoints board members would be made more in line with the Governor’s standing appointment authority for other boards, with Senate confirmation,” Marshall wrote of the proposal. “The legislation also creates the position of ‘director of pardons and paroles’ who would serve as the agency head, while the board would retain its independent judicial function of granting or denying parole and issuing pardons.”
However, the parole board has argued against consolidating the power to seat board members to one person. Currently, members are nominated through a committee comprised of the Lt. Governor, the Chief Justice of the Alabama Supreme Court, the presiding Criminal Appeals Judge, the Senate President pro tem and the Speaker of the House.
Then, similar to the system proposed in S 42, those nominees are appointed by the Governor, confirmed by the Senate and are subject to impeachment.
“The bill proposed by the Attorney General seeks to eliminate the nominating committee from this process,” Assistant Executive Director Darrell Morgan wrote in a response from the parole board. “It [also] seeks to remove authority for appointment of the agency’s executive director from the board, which has historically appointed the executive director.”
In the same statement, Morgan goes on to address some of the concerns raised by Ivey’s office and others. He noted the board adopted a policy last August limiting the amount of time allowed for early consideration to a maximum of three years, when it had previously put no restrictions on how early an inmate could be released from prison.
Morgan acknowledged “previous errors in calculations of parole guideline set dates” that led to some potential parolees being considered too early. However, he said those issues have been
“recognized repeatedly” since then in the board’s corrective action plan.
“These human errors hardly warrant the statement that ‘the parole board is not following its own rules and the system is broken,’” Morgan wrote, quoting a previous statement Marshall made about the board’s operation.
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