After six months with former Mobile County Judge Charlie Graddick as its director, the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) has made a number of adjustments to the way it operates — a welcome change or a concerning shift depending on whom you ask.
Graddick, who formerly served as Alabama’s Attorney General and as a circuit judge locally, was appointed director of ABPP by Gov. Kay Ivey in 2019. His appointment was part of a larger effort to overhaul the state’s system of pardons and paroles that began in 2018 over concerns with “violent” inmates being released from state prisons early.
To clarify, decisions about early release are made by the parole board, which is a separate entity from ABPP. The bureau supervises parolees and convicts on probation, though it also provides information to the board to help the three-member body make its decisions.
However, state officials often conflate the bureau and board when discussing Alabama’s system of pardons and paroles, as Ivey did when she appointed Graddick to his position. “I am proud to have someone of Judge Graddick’s experience and caliber at the helm of this board,” she said.
Soon after the change in leadership at ABPP, parole board chairman Lyn Head resigned her post and Ivey appointed former Assistant Attorney General Leigh Gwathney to replace her.
Almost immediately, Graddick issued a temporary moratorium on parole hearings so ABPP could make sure it was following the requirements to notify crime victims when their assailants are considered for early release.
According to ABPP Communications Director Terry Abbott, since hearings resumed Nov. 5, more than 421 inmates have come before the parole board but 52, or 12.4 percent, of those inmates have been granted parole.
That’s a significant drop from 2019, when the board granted parole to about 31 percent of candidates throughout the year.
According to Abbott, board members weigh several factors when considering whether or not to grant parole, such as the severity of the crime, the inmate’s disciplinary record in jail, their participation in re-entry programs, and whether or not they have job prospects, a home plan and/or a support network established outside of jail. A risk assessment interview also helps determine how likely an inmate might be to reoffend.
In January, ABPP only granted parole for one inmate tied to a “violent” crime reported in Mobile. Jeffie Gable was sentenced in 2008 to 20 years in prison for a first-degree robbery conviction, but was released last month after serving 11 years and nine months over objections from local prosecutors.
The average number of hearings per day and per month has also been lower so far this year, but that does seem to be picking up as the procedures are becoming more familiar. According to Abbott, ABPP expects to hold around 35 hearings a day in February and will be holding 45 hearings a day by March.
Though he has declined interviews with several publications in recent weeks, Graddick outlined a lot of his vision for ABPP in a December op-ed.
It’s a vision crime victims’ organizations have cheered, but has given pause to groups like the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), which argue granting parole to fewer inmates will ultimately exacerbate the existing crisis in Alabama’s unsafe and overcrowded prisons.
Despite the board’s ability to impact the state’s prison population, Graddick has argued alleviating prison overcrowding should be left up to Ivey, the Alabama Department of Corrections and state legislators. He believes the primary responsibility of ABPP should always be “public safety.”
“To those who believe parole is an inmate’s right — they are just wrong,” Graddick wrote. “Some seem to simply believe we shouldn’t have prisons or that we should be lenient to those who hurt or kill others or rape and pillage. I disagree, as do the vast majority of law-abiding, peaceful Alabamians.”
However, Graddick has also emphasized that his personal views are not shared with members of the board and don’t influence the outcome of parole hearings or when they are set to be heard. Instead, ABPP officials have said recent slowdowns in the scheduling of hearings and the decreased rate of granted proles have been the result of the parole board faithfully applying the law.
Those laws underwent a significant change in 2019 and now requires inmates convicted of “violent” crimes like murder, rape, sexual abuse and human trafficking serve 85 percent of a sentence to become parole eligible.
The new law also increased the board’s requirements to notify crime victims of parole hearings and codified policies that govern what the board weighs when evaluating a candidate for parole.
Mobile County District Attorney Ashley Rich said those procedural changes have had a big impact, too.
“Now we have procedures in place and checklists to ensure the parameters of what the board does and how it’s supposed to operate are being followed,” Rich said. “That’s huge for prosecutors who’ve worked so hard to put people in the penitentiary and huge for the victims of these crimes who’ve had their lives changed forever and are now getting notified so they have an opportunity to oppose these paroles.”
But not everyone has agreed with Graddick’s changes in Montgomery. Groups like the ACLU have argued tightening the reins on paroles and stacking the board with career law enforcement officials will ultimately contribute to longstanding issues already plaguing Alabama’s criminal justice system.
Beth Shelburne, an investigative reporter with the ACLU of Alabama’s Campaign for Smart Justice, said Ivey’s decision to appoint Graddick — who made his name in statewide politics as a “tough-on-crime” prosecutor — and Gwathney to positions of power overseeing paroling, was viewed as “a declaration of war” by many criminal justice reform advocates.
Since Graddick took over, Shelburne says ABPP has appeared to push the narrative that there aren’t any prisoners left in Alabama’s prisons who are eligible for parole. As hearings resumed last November, Graddick did release statistics about the types of offenses state prison inmates are incarcerated for, which showed the four largest groups were serving time for capital murder, murder, robbery and rape.
Shelburne has also criticized the new practice of releasing details about the crimes parole candidates were convicted of in ABPP press releases, which she says is an effort to “try these cases again” before the public.
“The purpose of parole is not to retry a criminal case — they’ve already been tried, convicted and have completed a large part of their sentence, many of them,” Shelburne said. “It’s also not the parole board’s job to dig up details about their past crimes so that the court of public opinion can decide all of these people are actively dangerous and shouldn’t be released. No other parole agency does that.”
While that kind of information about parole candidates has always been presented to board members, ABPP did not issue press releases detailing potential parolees’ crimes and criminal history until Graddick took over in 2019. However, the agency didn’t really issue many press releases at all before then, either.
Abbott said those kinds of details were all taken from public documents and news reports, though he also told Lagniappe the bureau recently made the decision to stop including that type of information in press releases about upcoming parole hearings.
He did not explain the reason for the change, though the practice is something the bureau has been criticized for in recent weeks.
“I can tell you that we were providing that information to the public and the news media in the interests of transparency,” Abbott wrote via email. “We have, however, changed our news release format to now indicate whether someone being considered for parole has a conviction on their record for a violent crime but not providing details in the news release regarding the criminal record.”
According to Abbott, that information is still available to the general public and media upon request.
Updated at 2:35 p.m., Feb. 12, to clarify the distinction between the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles and the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles overseen by Charlie Graddick.
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