If the previous Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles was too lenient in granting early release to inmates of the state’s overcrowded prisons, the current board seems to be erring in the opposite direction.
In November, under its new leader Charlie Graddick, the board granted parole for just 8% of the inmates whose cases it heard. That’s down drastically from earlier this year, when it was granting early release for about 21% of the violent offenders and 46% of the nonviolent offenders who came before it. But since resuming parole hearings early last month, the board has denied parole in 104 of 113 cases.
The change in the parole board stems largely from one high-profile case.
Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who was mistakenly paroled as a low-risk case, is charged in the deaths last year of Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, Colton Ryan Lee, 7, and Martha Dell Reliford, 65, in Guntersville. In response, Gov. Kay Ivey sought and obtained from the state Legislature more authority over the state parole board.
No one denies the Spencer case was a grave error with tragic consequences, but if the pendulum swings to the opposite extreme, that will have tragic consequences as well.
One of Ivey’s first actions under the new system was to name Graddick to head up the new body.
Graddick burst onto state politics in 1978, when he ran for state attorney general and appeared in a campaign commercial that showed him personally slamming shut a prison door. The subsequent four decades don’t seem to have done much to mellow Graddick. In particular, Graddick isn’t willing to cut any slack to nonviolent offenders.
“How many times do you hear on the local news, ‘this person was only in jail for a drug offense,’ ” Graddick said during a press conference last month. “I bet 90% of the crime in Alabama today has drugs involved in it. Drugs are driving crime like crazy in this state, so let’s not just look at it as ‘a drug offense.’ ”
While other states are legalizing the use of some drugs (marijuana) and reevaluating sentencing for other drug offenses, Graddick is stuck in the last century, and his math is elsewhere entirely.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, the national average for state and local inmates incarcerated because they committed crimes to obtain drug money is closer to 16% or 17%.
Graddick maintains that parole shouldn’t be used to help alleviate prison overcrowding, but at the rate the parole board is now granting early release, that problem will likely get worse, not better, all other things being equal. And that will certainly invite federal intervention.
If the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles can’t exercise leniency with regard to nonviolent crimes, state leaders may find the federal courts ordering the release of more offenders period, including those convicted of violent crimes.
Alabamians may face more, not fewer, violent criminals back on the street as a result.