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Alabama paroles drop further; releases lag for Black inmates

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — The rate of state inmates being granted freedom by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles has dropped for the third straight year, and paroles are lagging for Black prisoners compared to white ones, reported.

The three-member board granted parole for 648 inmates and turned down 3,584 others during the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30. The approval rate for the year was less than half the average of 37% for the previous 10 years.

Black prisoners are being granted parole less than half as often as their white counterparts, statistics show. The board has considered about 4,700 requests for pardons since November 2019, with a roughly equal number of white and Black applicants, yet it awarded pardons to 28% of white applicants and 18% of Black applicants.

Critics contend the board isn’t following its own guidelines and doesn’t provide enough information about why it denies parole. The rate began falling after parolee Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with killing two women and a child in Guntersville in July 2018, eight months after he was released.

“It only took the one bad apple to have really changed this in the direction of ‘Lock them up, throw away the key,'” said Aimee Smith, an attorney who has represented clients before the board for about 20 years.

The low approval rate reflects a prison population in which 83% of inmates are serving time for violent crimes, said the head of an advocacy group for crime victims.

“I mean, there are some horrible, horrible crimes and unless you sit there each and every day, and listen to all of them, you don’t realize how violent these people are,” said Janette Grantham, state director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, or VOCAL. “And when we let one of them out, they’re going to go live next door to somebody.”

The board has reduced the rate of pardons it grants even more sharply than paroles. In fiscal year 2021, the board granted 27% of pardon applications, down from 79% two years earlier.

While board members have full discretion over paroles and pardons, there has been some effort to develop objective standards.

In July 2020, the board revised its parole guidelines to “ensure the consistent review of certain common decisional factors for all offenders.” In fiscal year 2021, the guidelines recommended parole for 76% of inmates who were up for consideration, but the board followed the guidelines only 39% of the time.

Cam Ward, a former state senator who is director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, which oversees supervision of parolees and probationers, said the board is not required to follow the guidelines.

“They’re within the law because the law is so flexible on how they get to make those determinations,” Ward said.

“But I would hope that if they’re going to have these guidelines, you follow the guidelines.”

Ward said it would take legislation to give more weight to the guidelines.

“That’s the answer to those who are saying we just have such a low parole rate,” Ward said. “The answer is then you’ve got to have some more structure in place. So make it have teeth in those guidelines.”

State Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa who is chair of the state Democratic Party, has been a critic of the board because of the decline in the parole rate and because of the racial disparity in paroles and pardons granted. Last fiscal year, 23% of white inmates considered for parole were approved, but only 9% of Black inmates.

England said he would support legislation that would make the parole board apply the guidelines or explain why it didn’t.

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