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In the Weeds with Attorney General Steve Marshall

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – For this week’s episode of “In the Weeds” with Alabama Daily News, I sat down with Attorney General Steve Marshall.

Though not planned this way, the timing ended up being fortuitous because it came the same week as the first shake-ups at the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles. On Friday, Gov. Kay Ivey announced the appointment of Charlie Graddick as Executive Director of that agency (though Inside Alabama Politics subscribers got this scoop on Wednesday) and now Caroline Beck and Mary Sell are reporting that Board Chairman Lynn Head could also now be replaced as her term recently expired.

During this episode, I unpack the Pardons and Paroles saga going back at least two years into the Jimmy O’Neal Spencer case to the recently-passed legislation to overhaul the system. Marshall talked about the situation in depth, and it’s clear this is one of his biggest frustrations and highest priorities.

Here are a few other items to listen for in our interview:

  • We talked about his background as a lawyer and why he got into prosecution after starting out in private practice (a good story);
  • I asked about his college days and I did not know he was a UNC tarheel during the Michael Jordan era;
  • We talked about his work on the Census / immigration situation, and he actually corrected me for conflating the issue (If you’ve ever confused the Census question with the immigration reapportionment question, his explanation will be helpful); 
  • I asked him about Ethics reform, what the end game is going to be, and how the Supreme Court might influence the Legislature’s actions;
  • He discussed at length the new dual track appeals process policy he successfully championed, which essentially amounts to quicker appeals decisions, especially in death penalty cases;
  • And of course, Pardons and Paroles;
  • Also, it has been a little over a year since the death of Marshall’s wife, Bridgette. That’s obviously not a fun topic, but I thought it was important to at least ask about in terms of his willingness to help other families deal with addiction and suicide issues. And for all that was said back a year ago, I wanted to give him the opportunity to say as much as he wanted in an un-redacted form. I hope you’ll find his candid comments as illuminating and meaningful as I did.

Here’s a transcript excerpt on the Pardons and Paroles discussion:

Todd Stacy: You mentioned pardons and paroles, and that certainly seems to have been a frustration. You passed a bill, right?

Attorney General Steve Marshall: Right.

TS: The Legislature passed a bill that I think y’all helped write and we’re very involved in. It’s a reform bill, but you’re going to have new leadership, both at the executive level and the board leadership level at some point, probably soon. What needs to happen there? Are you confident that the bill the Legislature passed and the reforms have been put in place… is that the ticket to success? How do we get there and who needs to be leading the Board of Pardons and Paroles? 

SM: So, a couple things about the bill: what we were able to do is, number one, generate accountability within that organization that didn’t exist before. And the reason why is that the Board was self contained in both making decisions on pardons and paroles and running the agency, and they were accountable to no one. Now, we’ve changed that. At this point, the governor is going to have the opportunity to name a new head of that agency. And then we’ve taken away the responsibility of the Board to run the agency and instead to be singularly focused on the decisions they have before them on who should receive supervised release, which I think is is a critical role. It’s no different than in some ways what a judge does in hearing cases to give them the ability to prepare and fully vet those who come up for a pardon. So what I think we have accomplished is a fresh start.

So that bringing somebody in that the governor chooses to be able to look at the reforms that took place now going on three and a half to four years ago, which were supposed to reduce the ratio of probation officers to those that were on probation to be able to more intensely supervise what are identified as high risk individuals on supervision. These are areas in which we have not met the standards and the expectations that the Legislature had when they passed it and when the governor signed the bill. Those have not come to fruition, and it needs to be a priority for the person coming in. You’re going to hear me as attorney general say that needs to be done. And then beyond that, we haven’t met the staffing levels that were expected and there’s been money in the budget to be able to do it. We’ve got to find a way to make sure that we have qualified officers in the field to be able to do this work. Really that is all on the supervision side.

On the pardoning side, public safety has to be their priority. We had a meeting recently. The governor, who has been very much a champion with us in this regard, asked a very direct question to the board itself,  “what do you feel like your role is?” And one of the comments we heard was to make sure the prison population doesn’t get too high. That’s not their function. That’s not their role. In fact, that’s nowhere in the statute.  Their job is public safety and the decisions they make about who ought to be released.

And that’s why within that bill just a policy statement alone saying that public safety is a paramount concern for the board was important. Because not only did we basically adopt their rules they already had within statutory provisions to make them follow what they say they were going to do before, but it’s to reinforce the role that the board ought to be making decisions that ensure public safety. Does that mean that every person they release they can ensured won’t do anything wrong? No, we don’t contend that. But yet we can sure make reasoned, rational decisions on who to release to minimize that from potentially happening.

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