As a state senator five years ago, Cam Ward sponsored a criminal justice reform bill hailed as an important step to relieve overcrowding in Alabama prisons.
Today, the U.S. Department of Justice contends that Alabama has failed to improve its prisons, which hold about 150% of the population they were designed to house. In a lawsuit filed Dec. 9, the DOJ claims that Alabama incarcerates inmates in dangerous conditions that violate the Constitution.
Ward, a Republican from Shelby County, has a new job as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, an agency responsible for supervising many of the men and women who cycle into and out of prison.
In an interview one week after starting his new job, Ward said Pardons and Paroles can play a key role in helping fix what he says is still a “broken” criminal justice system.
“It shouldn’t be the job of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles to make sure prisons aren’t overcrowded,” Ward said. “But we do have a role in the current crisis we’re facing as a state.”
Ward said the main goals should be to improve supervision of offenders and reduce recidivism. But he said changes will take time.
Ward, a lawyer from Alabaster who worked in economic development but who has been deeply involved in prison reform efforts as a lawmaker, resigned his Senate seat to accept Gov. Kay Ivey’s appointment as Pardons and Paroles director. He was sworn in Dec. 7 to replace former Mobile County Circuit Judge and Attorney General Charlie Graddick, who stepped down after 15 months leading the bureau.
Over the last year, some legislators and advocates, including the ACLU of Alabama, have criticized Pardons and Paroles because of a sharp decline in parole cases heard and paroles granted during Graddick’s time as director. They said the reduction in paroles adds to the overcrowding that contributes to violence and other problems in prisons. They said the risk posed by the COVID-19 pandemic in dorms packed wall-to-wall with inmates made the decline in paroles more alarming.
It’s not the director’s job to decide who is granted parole, a point Graddick made to lawmakers during a contentious meeting in January. The three-member Parole Board, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, makes those decisions.
“The parole board follows the law and then the three of them make their judgment as to whether or not they’re going to be a risk to the community,” Graddick told legislators. “And I guess we’ve just got too many violent people in jail.”
But the director does help determine how many cases the Parole Board hears. The bureau keeps track of inmates who are eligible for parole and prepares the board’s docket.
Ward said he believes the Parole Board is doing a good job and handling about as many cases as it can. He said it is possible to expand the docket but also said the board needs more support and legal staff. Ward said the 2015 criminal justice bill reduced the proportion of nonviolent offenders in the prison population, one of the goals of the legislation, and as a result lowered the percentage of those who are good candidates for parole.
“The population has changed a lot since we passed the 2015 statute,” Ward said. “The number of people who qualify for parole has dropped dramatically.”
Ward said the proportion of violent offenders in prison has increased from about 60% to about 75%.
On the other hand, parole hearings should not be a forum to put inmates on trial again for their crimes, Ward said.
“I do still think you have to look at as many people as you can who are eligible,” Ward said. “And again, reevaluate their cases not based upon their original crime, but based upon what they can do now.”
One group has argued that there are more in prison eligible for parole.
In April, the ACLU of Alabama released a report saying the number of inmates in Alabama prisons who are eligible for parole hearings had almost tripled, from about 1,500 to about 4,400, over eight months. In another report, the ACLU cited what it called a stark disparity between paroles granted to Black candidates and white candidates.
Decline in paroles
A steep decline in paroles started before Graddick. It came after parolee Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with killing two women and a child in Guntersville in 2018, about six months after he was released on parole.
The tragedy sparked legislation, backed by Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall, that made the parole board director an appointee of the governor. Before that, the director answered to the board.
Graddick was Ivey’s first choice as director. When he took over in September 2019 he suspended hearings for about two months because he said the bureau was not following the law on notifying victims. Graddick said he had to reorganize the bureau. When hearings resumed they came at a reduced pace.
Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, which suspended hearings for two months until they resumed on a virtual basis in May.
The decline in hearings and paroles granted over the last few years is dramatic:
- Fiscal year 2018: 3,732 granted, 3,264 denied, grant rate of 53%.
- Fiscal year 2019: 1,337 granted, 2,933 denied, grant rate of 31%
- Fiscal year 2020, 544 granted, 2,160 denied, grant rate of 20%.
Graddick was director for the last month of fiscal year 2019 and all of fiscal year 2020.
With the pandemic still going, the parole board holds virtual hearings three days a week, usually about 30 or 40 hearings each day. The board members are Leigh Gwathney, a former deputy district attorney in Jefferson County, who is the chair, Dwayne Spurlock, and Cliff Walker.
“First of all, the board is doing a good job on hearings,” Ward said. “I think the question is, do we want to increase the number of people on the docket? I think if there are more people eligible, then sure. If there are more eligible and that’s what the data show based upon the law, then there should be a larger docket. But as far as hearings, I think the board is having as many hearings as they can.”
Rep. Jim Hill, R-Moody, a retired judge who chairs the Alabama House Judiciary Committee, has proposed a bill to create a second parole board that would operate for two years to help reduce the backlog of inmates eligible for parole. A second parole board was set up to reduce prison crowding during the Gov. Bob Riley administration.
Providing the case management and support for the Parole Board is just one of the responsibilities for the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, an agency with more than 700 employees. About one-half of the employees are probation and parole officers, the other half are support staff.
A main goal of the 2015 legislation was to increase the number of probation and parole officers to more effectively supervise probationers and parolees. That remains a work in progress.
According to the 2020 annual report, the bureau increased its staff from 498 employees to 729 during fiscal year 2020. More than 300 are probation and parole officers who supervise offenders. There was an overall ratio of 87 cases per officer, higher than what the bureau says is a target ratio of 75 cases.
Ward said he plans to request funding to hire more officers but expects that to come gradually.
Ward said he plans to reopen the LIFE Tech Transitional Center in Thomasville, which Graddick closed. The center is a residential facility for male offenders for education, substance abuse treatment, and training. The bureau described it as a successful program in its 2018 annual report, calling it the agency’s “foremost intensive re-entry and rehabilitation program for male offenders.”
Ward said the LIFE Tech Center can help the men obtain the work skills and stability to help them avoid crime and going back to prison, a program that fits with the focus on reentry that he said he will make his priority as director.
“All of these people reentering society, how do we make sure they’re prepared and they’re productive citizens and don’t come back?” Ward said. “We have a long way to go.”
Graddick said it was outside the authority and scope of the bureau to operate a residential facility for inmates like the LIFE Tech Center. Graddick supported the bureau’s Day Reporting Centers, which provide behavioral therapy, substance abuse treatment, and adult education in Birmingham, Mobile, Huntsville, Montgomery, and Tuscaloosa with the goal of reducing recidivism.
Ward said one deficiency he plans to correct is a lack of communication between the bureau and the Alabama Department of Corrections.
“DOC and Pardon and Parole have not been talking at all,” Ward said. “There has been zero communication.”
Ward said he has met with Department of Corrections Commissioner Jeff Dunn and plans to do so regularly.
The Department of Corrections did not respond to a request for an interview about the communications issue.
Sen. Greg Albritton, R-Atmore, chairman of the Alabama Senate’s General Fund budget committee, said the lack of communication between Pardons and Paroles and the Department of Corrections has hampered the effectiveness of both agencies and limited the scope of the education and training programs inmates need.
“The difficulty primarily is that you have the Department of Corrections and the Department of Pardons and Paroles working at cross purposes,” Albritton said. “Neither one seem to be taking responsibility for the inmates’ care, housing, or training. Most of them are going to come out on the street at some point. But there’s no one responsible to prepare them for that.”
Albritton said an example of the problem is the failure to collaborate on the LIFE Tech Center in Thomasville and the Alabama Therapeutic Educational Facility in Columbiana, which is under the Department of Corrections. The two programs have essentially the same mission, preparing inmates to succeed outside the correctional system, but have operated independently.
Albritton met with Ward, Department of Corrections officials, representatives of the community college system and others a few days before Christmas to talk about more collaborative efforts. The community college system provides education and career tech programs for inmates. Albritton said he hopes LIFE Tech can reopen and coordinate efforts with the Columbiana facility, community colleges, and possibly others.
“What we’re trying to do now is not just kick off LIFE Tech, but we’re trying to kick off a training program that’s larger,” Albritton said. “The goal is to get so that every inmate that comes out and gets to the street, which most of them will wind up there, is to have them better prepared and better supervised than what we’ve had in the past. That can only be done when the Department of Corrections and Pardons and Paroles works hand in hand.”
Another area for improvement at the bureau is record-keeping, a point Graddick also raised. The bureau still uses paper files. The bureau’s offices in the Capitol Commerce Center have long cabinets topped with folders and boxes on the floor.
“It’s a huge problem,” Ward said. “One, it slows things down. But two, how efficient can that be if I go pull this XYZ number file and you hope nothing fell out? You hope everything is there. Of course, if something got lost, we’re delayed X number of days.”
Alabama inmates who are candidates for parole do not attend their parole hearings. Ward said he would like to develop a way for inmates to appear before the board virtually.
Ward said that would eliminate some of the key reasons inmates don’t attend, the need to transport them from prison and avoid being in the same hearing room as victims or their families.
“If the inmate is talking virtually with just the board, the inmate and the victim would never see each other,” Ward said. “You don’t want those two to be forced to interact. You don’t want to do that to the victim. But I think you can do it virtually. There’s a way to get there.”
Ward said he planned to discuss the idea with the board.
Graddick did not return a phone call seeking comment for this story.