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Parole reform bill sees opposition, sent to subcommittee

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Amid eligible Alabama prisoners being denied parole at increasing rates, a bill designed to reverse that trend saw opposition in the House Judiciary Committee last week, and was ultimately sent to the subcommittee.

Sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, House Bill 16 would create an eight-person council to develop and employ eligibility guidelines for the state’s parole board. Were those guidelines to be deviated from, the bill would mandate that the board produce a report explaining the reason for deviation. The Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles denied 90% of eligible applicants last fiscal year.

The bill was one of ten reviewed Wednesday by the House Judiciary Committee, where all but two were given favorable reports.

“The (parole) board can continue – as it’s doing now – ignoring guidelines,” England said when introducing his bill.

“The board can continue – as it’s doing now – making arbitrary decisions without considering the circumstances that the applicant has worked toward, (and) it also can continue ignoring the fact that the Department of Corrections themselves have identified a number of people who are no longer a threat; those folks are being routinely denied (parole) as well.”

Alabama currently has among the highest incarceration rates in the country, with 2019 figures showing an incarceration rate of 860 per 100,000 Alabamians – the fifth-highest nationally. The state’s parole grant rate has also been shrinking in recent years, with 31% of eligible prisoners being granted parole in 2019, 20% in 2020, 15% in 2021, and just 10% this past fiscal year.

Rep. Ben Robbins, R-Sylacauga, proposed an amendment to England’s bill adding a ninth member to the parole board advisory council to avoid situations where the council votes in a 4-4 tie. The amendment also stipulated that the ninth member be appointed by the state’s attorney general, an amendment that passed unanimously.

Rep. Jerry Starnes, R-Prattville, said he was strongly opposed to England’s bill, and that he wanted to kill the bill in its entirety.

“I spent 25 years with pardons and parole, and I just want to say that it’s a hoax that the parole board is not releasing folks,” Starnes said. 

“We have mandatory release, and they are being released left and right. Now, when the Parole Board considers somebody on parole, that offender is the bottom of the bottom. So with that being said, I truly oppose this council and I would like to move this forward to kill this council.”

In response, England argued that mandatory release and parole releases were “two different things,” and that his bill had nothing to do with mandatory release.

“When you say people are being released all the time, sure, through mandatory release that happens, but when we’re talking about going to the Parole Board, the exact opposite happens, and the numbers are showing that,” England said. 

Rep. Matt Simpson, R-Daphne, said he had concerns with the bill and creating a new council, a tactic he said was “growing government exponentially.”

Ultimately, the bill was sent to a subcommittee.

Following the meeting, England told Alabama Daily News that the framing of addressing Alabama’s growing incarceration rate was often misguided, and that were improvements to be made, lawmakers would have to consider “a different approach.”

“I keep hearing this stuff about tough on crime and soft on crime; that’s a ruse,” England told ADN. 

“What we’re really talking about is stupid on crime or smart on crime. Over the last three years since parole rates have dropped and prison populations increased, guess what else has also increased? Crime. For years, the prison population was going down, crime was going down, and now everything that we’ve done that was successful over those years, we’re reversing. I think it’s just time for a different approach.”

Alabama Daily News asked Starnes what methods he might consider to address the state’s growing incarceration rate, to which he shared his personal experience when working for prisons in the mid-1990s.

“I worked in the prison from 1993-1996, and I tell you, they had the chain gain (that) worked on the farms, and every first offender (that) came in that camp, they had to work and worked hard,” Starnes said. 

“They didn’t want to work on that farm because that was hard work, they wanted to clean the dormitory, they wanted to go to school, they wanted to do other things, and that was an incentive for them to do that. So I think we’ve taken away the work ethic for those offenders. I think we need to bring hard work back into the institutions where they have to earn certain things and (are) not given those opportunities freely.”

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