MONTGOMERY, Ala. – The three-person Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has had a vacant seat for more than a month, with the board’s monthly parole grant rate plummeting to just 4.1% in July, nearly 10 percentage points lower than in June.
An Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles spokesperson confirmed last week that the agency is still waiting for the vacancy to be filled through an appointment by Gov. Kay Ivey. State records show that Kim Davidson, who was appointed to the board in March to serve out the remaining months of former board member Dwayne Spurlock’s term, was last present for a Pardons and Paroles hearing on June 29.
Board members are selected through a process by which a three-member legislative body – which currently consists of House Speaker Nathaniel Ledbetter, R-Rainsville, Senate President Greg Reed, R-Jasper, and Lt. Gov. Will Ainsworth – produce a list of five potential candidates for the governor. The governor then makes a selection and appoints that individual to the board.
Gina Maiola, the governor’s communications director, confirmed with Alabama Daily News Ivey is still “awaiting the list of potential appointees.”
Leading up to Davidson’s departure, the board had a parole grant rate in May of 16.5%, granting conditional releases to 46 of 278 inmates eligible for parole. In June, Davidson’s last month on the board, the rate dropped slightly to 13.2%. Davidson could not be reached last week to comment on whether she’d like to remain on the board.
To be granted, inmates have to have a majority of the board vote in favor of parole. With the board down to just two remaining members, July saw the board’s parole grant rate drop to 4.1%, with just 11 out of 267 inmates eligible for parole granted release. The board held an additional 48 parole hearings during the first two days of August, granting parole to just two for a parole grant rate of 4.3%.
Based on data spanning from January to late July, the board was already on track to release the smallest annual percentage of inmates on parole in over a decade. Were the board’s vacant seat to remain unfilled, current trends suggest the 2023 parole grant rate could drop to as low as 7%.
Reed and Ainsworth’s offices did not respond last week to requests for comment as to why a list of candidates had not been produced yet. Ledbetter’s staff declined to comment as to the reason for the delay.
Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, made an unsuccessful effort during the 2023 legislative session to reform the parole board, which he accused of ignoring its own parole guidelines. The most recent monthly statistical report from the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles shows that in March, the board had a recommended grant rate of 82% based on its own guidelines.
The board instead had a parole grant rate in March of 2%, granting conditional release to seven out of 282 eligible inmates.
England told Alabama Daily News on Thursday that he didn’t feel the vacancy on the board was the root cause of the shrinking parole grant rates, but rather, the board’s chair Leigh Gwathney.
“This is not a secret, I’ve said from the very beginning, as long as Leigh Gwathney is in place, you’re going to get the same results,” he said.
“I’m not basing that on just my personal opinion; since the day Gwathney stepped in office, the board has been inconstant, it’s been ineffective, it’s been somewhat incompetent, and also the results can’t be relied upon. It could have 45 members; as long as she’s in charge, I wouldn’t expect anything different.”
Gwathney was appointed as the board’s chair in 2019, an appointment that has coincided with a significant drop in the board’s parole grant rate that had been on a steady increase since at least 2013.
Gwathney could not be reached for comment late last week.
At around 30%, the board’s parole grant rate in 2013 gradually rose each year before peaking in 2018 at around 55%. In 2019, the rate dropped to around 31%, and fell further every year, reaching a new low of 10% for 2022.