Bill to restructure parole board heads to governor’s desk

Seal of AL Board of Pardons and Paroles (Source: WSFA)
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) -- A bill to restructure the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles is heading to the governor’s desk.

HB380 made final passage out of the Senate late Thursday, but it didn't come without a fight. Something House Sponsor Connie Rowe didn't anticipate.

“For me, it’s an easy call," Rowe said of her support for the bill. “It’s simply one of those right things to do - moments. Someone has to respond to the circumstance that happened in Guntersville and other circumstances that have occurred that are very similar. Those are the kind of actions that require an adequate response.”

Senate Sponsor Cam Ward took the floor Thursday and read off names of violent offenders docketed for early parole consideration with lengthy sentences - an issue that’s been lost in translation as the bill moved through the legislature.

“We aren’t talking a ban on parole, you’re not talking about low level offenders not getting paroled,” Ward explained. “What you are saying is those top five most heinous crimes should have a set time before they are up for parole.”

The bill creates a new director position, which will be appointed by the governor, and run the agency, which is currently handled by the board.

Katherine Robertson, chief counsel to the attorney general drafted this legislation. She believes restructuring the agency's leadership is key.

“I see it as a response to the disfunction that we’ve seen,” Robertson said of the passage of HB380. “We’ve been looking at the Board of Pardons and Paroles for many months, we’ve seen a lot of problems not the least of which are public safety threats their decisions have posed.”

Board Chairwoman Lyn Head has been vocal in opposing this legislation, specifically regarding the leadership changes.

“I trust that Governor Ivey will do what is best for our state and agency, and hope that the improvements which are underway will not be interrupted through the transitions which will be necessitated pursuant to this legislation,” Head stated in an email Thursday.

Advocacy groups remain split over the legislation. V.O.C.A.L. executive director Janette Grantham praised the Legislature's action.

“Our legislature stood tall for crime victims during this legislation, especially House Representative Connie Rowe and Senator Cam Ward. I am happy to say that Martha Reliford, Marie Martin, and 7-year-old Colton Lee did not die in vain. Our communities are safer today”, said Grantham, recalling the names of the victims reportedly killed by Jimmy O’Neal Spencer following his release from prison.

The Southern Poverty Law Center sharply criticized the move, stating the bill will set back the state's order to reduce its prison population.

“Today’s passage of HB 380 unnecessarily politicizes the Board of Pardons and Paroles,” stated Ebony Howard, senior supervising attorney for the SPLC Action Fund. “It will increase overcrowding in prisons with no corresponding increase in public safety for the state. In passing HB 380, Alabama’s leaders in the Senate are making policy based on emotions and fear, rather than data and facts. They are ignoring the conclusions of the U.S. Department of Justice’s horrifying report issued in April, the very first substantive section of which is entitled ‘ADOC’s Overcrowding Contributes to Serious Harm to Prisoners.’”

Gov. Kay Ivey is expected to sign the bill in the coming days. The law would go into effect in October.

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