2 years ago

Alabama legislature passes bill to reform ‘badly broken’ Board of Pardons and Paroles

MONTGOMERY — The Alabama Senate on Thursday overwhelmingly gave final passage to a bill that would provide much-needed reform of the beleaguered state Board of Pardons and Paroles.

HB 380, sponsored by State Rep. Connie Rowe (R-Jasper), would be a comprehensive overhaul of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. The legislation would specifically mandate that individuals convicted of certain violent offenses (Class A felonies) serve 85% of his or her sentence before being eligible for parole. Current law only stipulates that violent offenders serve one-third or 10 years of his or her sentence, whichever is less, unless a unanimous vote of the board rules otherwise.

State Senator Cam Ward (R-Alabaster) carried the bill in the Senate. Ward is well known for being a leading bipartisan criminal justice and corrections reform advocate in the state legislature.

The legislation, which now heads to the governor’s desk, was crafted by Attorney General Steve Marshall’s office in response to reports in the fall that the board was releasing dangerous felons back onto the street long before their sentences were up. Marshall has called the board “badly broken.”

One egregious example that the attorney general pointed to in a video released this spring was that of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, who is now charged with three murders in Marshall’s home county after he was released by the Board of Pardons and Paroles while serving a life sentence.

In fact, the state last week announced that it will pay the maximum settlement allowed under the law to the families of Spencer’s victims because of the Board of Pardons and Paroles’ failure.

However, Board of Pardons and Paroles Chair Lyn Head in a Senate committee on Tuesday testified, “We are not broken.”

She even defended the board’s release of Spencer, claiming it was unavoidable.

Prior to his release and subsequent alleged murder spree, Spencer had lived a life of crime stretching across three decades, beginning in 1984 at the age of 19. He was convicted and imprisoned for numerous serious property and violent crimes, as well as for numerous disciplinary infractions in prison and for several successful escapes from prison.

On two separate occasions, Spencer was sentenced to life imprisonment. In one memorable case, he attempted to burglarize an occupied home and, refusing to retreat, had to be shot by the homeowner.

Despite all of this, Spencer was granted parole by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles on November 2, 2017.

Spencer was at that time released to a homeless shelter in Birmingham where he was supposed to remain for six months. However, after only three weeks, he left.

Spencer then traveled to Guntersville, where he had several run-ins with law enforcement and was charged for multiple violations of the law, including: traffic offenses, possession of drug paraphernalia, attempting to elude police, resisting arrest and illegal possession of a firearm.

Nonetheless, his parole was not revoked — which seemingly led to three innocent lives being taken.

Less than six months after being released, in July 2018, Spencer allegedly murdered Martha Reliford through blunt-force trauma to her head. Her body was discovered only after the bodies of Marie Martin and her seven-year-old grandson, Colton Lee, were found in a nearby home. They also had been brutally murdered.

Spencer was charged in the three deaths with capital murder in August 2018. He is currently awaiting trial in the Kilby Correctional Facility in Montgomery.

‘A red meat issue’

While Spencer’s case is certainly heinous, the attorney general’s office and Ward on Thursday emphasized Spencer’s case is not an outlier.

In a tweet thread, Marshall outlined twelve awful cases of violent offenders released early by the board who seriously re-offended after leaving prison.

Ward stressed similarly deplorable examples on the Senate floor, noting one inmate sentenced to 30 years for murder who was granted parole after only five years, which was a violation of the board’s own internal rules.

While victims’ families would certainly disagree, Senate Minority Leader Bobby Singleton (D-Greensboro) on the floor claimed HB 380 was simply “a red meat issue” for Republicans, calling it “a bad bill.”

HB 380 would also require that at least one of the three members of the board be a current or former law enforcement officer with a minimum of 10 years’ experience “in or with a law enforcement agency which has among its primary duties and responsibilities the investigation of violent crimes or the apprehension, arrest, or supervision of the perpetrators thereof.”

Additionally, HB 380 would establish a director of Pardons and Paroles that would serve as its chief executive officer. This position would be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the governor. The bill makes further structural and operational changes to the board to increase accountability and efficiency.

Language in the bill reaffirms that “the board’s paramount duty is to protect public safety” when making decisions, a key point Rowe on Tuesday stressed. She cautioned that the board’s primary role is not to reduce the prison population, despite some misguided perception to the contrary.

Ward in committee on Tuesday cleared up “misinformation” surrounding the bill, saying the legislation would safeguard against the premature release of only the worst type of convicted offenders and not inhibit the release and rehabilitation of those imprisoned for lesser, non-violent offenses.

He also criticized the current board executive director for using his state email account to encourage parole officers to travel to the State House in state vehicles to lobby against the legislation. Ward called this an improper use of state resources, a point Governor Kay Ivey made earlier in the day when speaking to members of the media.

The Senate vote on HB 380 was 25-5.

Immediately after passage, the chief counsel for the Alabama Attorney General’s Office, Katherine Robertson, told Yellowhammer News, “The Attorney General is extremely pleased that the Pardons and Paroles reform bill is headed to the Governor’s desk. It’s a solemn and somber occasion though, when we reflect on everything that set this legislation in motion. We can’t thank Senator Ward or Representative Rowe enough for their leadership and courage to see this across the finish line.”

Update 4:30 p.m.:

Following the Senate’s passage of HB 380, Governor Kay Ivey released a statement confirming her intent to sign the bill, which was expected.

“Too many lives were lost because of wrongful, early paroles in our state,” Ivey outlined. “Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall and I have been relentless in our efforts to ensure the Board of Pardons and Paroles is managed prudently and effectively.”

The governor explained, “This bill ensures strong accountability and oversight of a large state agency with more than 600 employees. The justice system should not fail the people of our state again, like it did in the Jimmy O’Neal Spencer case last year.”

“I commend Rep. Rowe, Sen. Ward and the Alabama Legislature on the successful passage of this bill. Ultimately, this is a major win for victims’ rights, the families of victims and every citizen across the state. We will continue to be steadfast in our efforts to improve the pardons and paroles system, while restoring confidence in public safety,” Ivey concluded. “I look forward to receiving and signing this important piece of legislation.”

Rowe told Yellowhammer News that she anticipates a signing ceremony will be held for this bill.

Sean Ross is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

8 mins ago

Raytheon holds event in Huntsville to encourage more girls to become engineers

Raytheon, a defense contractor with a large presence in Huntsville, held its annual “Introduce a Girl To Engineering Event” this week.

The company invited students from Alabama’s School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE) to take part in an engineering challenge, followed by a panel discussion with accomplished female engineers and cyber professionals.

Yellowhammer News asked Teresa Shea, vice president of Cyber Offense and Defense at Raytheon Intelligence & Space, about the state of women in the cyber engineering and defense fields. Shea was one of the panelists that spoke with the students on Thursday.

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Shea joined the federal government’s National Security Agency shortly after earning her engineering degree and went on to have a distinguished career in the defense industry.

“What struck me then and inspires me to this day is the impact that intelligence has in saving lives and influencing policymakers. I’ve been in this field for over 40 years and would encourage all young women and men to consider intelligence and defense as a career choice. It is extremely rewarding and purposeful,” she told Yellowhammer.

Shea said that in recent years she has been thrilled to see more women joining fields based on science, math and engineering. She observed that many young people she meets in those fields “want to make the world a better place.”

“Many see cybersecurity as a way to do just that. With the increased amount of interconnectivity, cyber is underpinning everything we do. Protecting that foundation is critical. I’m excited that young women are recognizing that and taking on the challenge of becoming engineers and computer scientists to improve our security nation-wide,” Shea advised.

Yellowhammer asked Shea what kind of impact schools like the Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering (ASCTE) are having on the engineering field.

“The Alabama School of Cyber Technology and Engineering is the only high school in the nation for students seeking advanced engineering and cyber technology studies. It’s groundbreaking for our country,” she began.

“We know that, especially for girls, exposure to STEM at a young age is very important. If we can reach high school-aged students, we can show them not only how important cyber is, but also how much fun and rewarding a career in cyber can be, especially when working closely with others as a team to problem solve. If we can ‘hook’ them in high school, we’ll have a strong pipeline of engineering talent for life,” she added.

Two young women involved in the event told WZDX that they found having prominent women involved in engineering fields “inspiring.”

In speaking to the assembled young women, Shea started by saying, “I am so proud of each and every one of you for choosing to attend ASCTE.”

“There are endless opportunities for you to make the world a better place – and cybersecurity is not always the easiest of careers. Like every field, you face challenges every day. However, working in cybersecurity is extremely rewarding and is a choice I’m proud to have made. I give you lots of credit for making this choice early in your educational career and I know that your contributions to this field will help make the world a safer place,” Shea told the students.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

1 hour ago

Ainsworth opts against 2022 U.S. Senate run

Lt. Governor Will Ainsworth (R-AL) on Friday announced he will not be a candidate in Alabama’s 2022 U.S. Senate contest.

The seat is being vacated by U.S. Senator Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) decision not to seek a seventh term.

Ainsworth, who is serving his first term as lieutenant governor, is the prohibitive favorite to be the Yellowhammer State’s next governor.

“After discussions with my wife, Kendall, and prayerful consideration, I have decided that I will not be a candidate for the U.S. Senate,” he wrote in a social media post. “Because our twin boys and daughter are young and need a father who is present and deeply involved in their lives, I feel strongly that God’s plan currently calls for me to continue leading on the state, not federal, level of government.”

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“The encouragement to run that I have received from every corner of the state is humbling, and the support of my fellow Alabamians is deeply appreciated,” Ainsworth continued. “Sen. Shelby has served Alabama well, and his shadow will loom large over all those who run to fill his seat. As lieutenant governor, I will continue seeking conservative solutions to the problems facing Alabama and will keep working each day to bring more jobs, hope, and opportunities to the citizens of our state.”

Lynda Blanchard is currently the only announced candidate in the 2022 U.S. Senate race.

Sean Ross is the editor of Yellowhammer News. You can follow him on Twitter @sean_yhn

2 hours ago

East Alabama’s Russel Medical receives ‘transformational’ $25M gift

Russell Medical, a hospital located in Alexander City that serves a large portion of East Alabama, announced a multi-facility expansion on Thursday that is being made possible by a $25 million gift.

Making the donation to the nonprofit hospital are Ben and Luanne Russell. Ben Russell is the CEO of Russell Lands, the company that has developed much of the area around Lake Martin. His grandfather, affectionately known as “Mr. Ben,” built the famous Russell clothing company.

The gift from the Russells is the largest in the history of Russell Medical. It will provide for the construction of a new large-scale project focused on providing care for the elderly.

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To be built on the hospital’s campus in Alexander City, the Russell Legacy Project will include 26 units of independent living single-family cottages, an assisted living facility with 32 units.

The Russells’ donation will also provide for the construction of the Benjamin Russell Center for Advanced Care, a new project for the hospital that will “provide comprehensive geriatric health care and specialty health care services,” per a release.

“Ben and Luanne’s extraordinary act of generosity reflects a caring family who are great supporters of Alexander City, the Lake Martin area, and the medical community in Alabama. The Russell Legacy Project allows us to grow services centered on the largest sector who are in need of healthcare services, those citizens 65 years and older,” stated Jim Peace, president and CEO of Russell Medical.

In addition to the new facility, the gift from the Russels will create the Benjamin Russell Endowed Chair in Geriatrics, pending approval by the University of Alabama System Board of Trustees. Russel Medical is a member of the UAB Health System.

“Each day for the next 20+ years, approximately 10,000 adults will turn 65, and with this trend, the demand for Geriatricians is expected to skyrocket,” remarked Dr. Cynthia Brown, director for the Division of Gerontology, Geriatrics, and Palliative Care at UAB.

The advanced care facility will be constructed in front of the hospital’s cancer center and will look out onto Highway 280. In addition to its primary focus on elder care, the center will house Women’s Health and other specialty clinics.

“As lifelong residents of Alexander City, Luanne and I have supported the Lake Martin area and this hospital and are pleased to be able to make this gift, honoring my grandfather, Benjamin Russell. Mr. Ben did much for this state and its people. This gift is one way Luanne and I can recognize his contributions,” said Ben Rusell.

Henry Thornton is a staff writer for Yellowhammer News. You can contact him by email: henry@yellowhammernews.com or on Twitter @HenryThornton95.

6 hours ago

7 Things: Alabama State Health Officer says to take any coronavirus vaccine, Alabama Democrats think all protesters are rioters, U.S. Capitol still faces threats and more …

7. Joe Reed: Keep straight-ticket voting in Alabama

  • Democratic Party leader Joe Reed has come out against a piece of legislation that would get rid of straight-ticket voting throughout Alabama. Reed asked that the 24 Democratic members of the House of Representatives who have decided to co-sponsor the bill remove their support.
  • Reed asked the question, “What is wrong with a person voting the straight-ticket?” He added that he doesn’t know of any “harm” straight-ticket voting does to the “Democratic process,” and he focused on how removing straight-ticket voting would ultimately hurt the Democratic Party as it would remove support from candidates with less name ID.

6. $15 minimum wage is out of the coronavirus stimulus bill

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  • Congressional Democrats’ attempts to force a minimum wage hike into a completely unrelated coronavirus stimulus bill were stymied by Elizabeth MacDonough, the Senate parliamentarian who declared the provision violated budgetary rules.
  • Democrats will now have to gain Republican support for the measure or do it by killing the filibuster, a move they probably can’t pull off. Democrats like U.S. Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) are not happy and expressed as such, saying, “I’m sorry — an unelected parliamentarian does not get to deprive 32 million Americans the raise they deserve. This is an advisory, not a ruling. VP Harris needs to disregard and rule a $15 minimum wage in order. We were elected to deliver for the people. It’s time we do our job.”

5. Equality Act passes in Congress, Alabama takes another path

  • With only three Republicans voting for the Equality Act, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the bill in a 224-206 vote. The bill provides protections for those in the LGBTQ+ community in a wide range, including allowing transgender people to participate in their chosen gender’s league for sports.
  • In Alabama, a bill was approved by a House committee that would forbid doctors from using puberty-blocking medications, hormones and surgeries on transgender minors.

4. Legislature taking their time with medical marijuana

  • Alabama House Speaker Mac McCutcheon (R-Monrovia) has said that in the House of Representatives, they’re going take their time with the medical marijuana bill by sending it through the Judiciary and Health Committees.
  • McCutcheon said, “We’re going to go through the bill page-by-page.” The medical marijuana bill has already passed the State Senate and has to be passed by the House before Governor Kay Ivey can sign it into law.

3. Threats against the U.S. Capitol ahead of State of the Union

  • It hasn’t been scheduled or announced when President Joe Biden will give his first State of the Union address, but acting Capitol Police Chief Yogananda Pittman has said that there are credible threats to “blow up” the U.S. Capitol during the address. Pittman said this is why it’s necessary for security measures, like National Guardsman and the barbed wire fence, to stay in place.
  • Meanwhile, U.S. Senator Tommy Tuberville (R-AL) wants a fair and balanced investigation into the riots at the U.S. Capitol. He will even testify under oath during it, and he may get it after all.

2. Bill targeting rioters is somehow aimed at peaceful protesters

  • The legislation brought by State Representative Allen Treadaway (R-Morris) that would make rioting or inciting a riot a felony has received some backlash from State Senator Rodger Smitherman (D-Birmingham), who claims that the bill will actually target peaceful protesters.
  • Smitherman said that this bill “seeks to take us back 60 years to where we were at that particular time,” referencing the 1960s and 1970s when protestors were arrested. He went on to assert that this bill would lead to those who are protesting being arrested, adding, “We can’t allow to go back 60 years in time to try to oppress people from being able to…speak out.”

1. State Health Officer: Take the coronavirus vaccine made available to you

  • State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris is advising that people in Alabama should simply take whichever coronavirus vaccine that’s available to them. This came into question as it’s anticipated that the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will be approved by the Food and Drug Administration soon.
  • Dr. Harris stated, “This is a vaccine that prevents deaths and prevents even serious illness and hospitalization at the exact same rate as the other vaccines,” which doesn’t seem to be true.

7 hours ago

PSC President Cavanaugh: Measures implemented to protect Alabama against Texas-like widespread electric utility failures

Last week, the nation watched as Texas suffered electricity outages during an unprecedented winter storm that wreaked havoc on the Lone Star State.

Could that happen here in Alabama? Public Service Commission President Twinkle Cavanaugh said although no utility is completely invulnerable, measures have been taken to protect customers.

During an appearance on Mobile radio FM Talk 106.5’s “The Jeff Poor Show,” Cavanaugh elaborated on why Texas and Alabama are uniquely different and why Alabama may have fared differently under similar circumstances.

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“[I] did not know a whole lot about Texas until this started happening,” she said. “Since then, I have studied and tried to make sure we have covered all our bases here in Alabama, and that does not happen. Now, let me give this disclaimer — there is never 100% on any utility. Obviously, there are things utilities must do to be prepared. But there are things that can go wrong no matter how prepared you are. I always give that disclaimer.”

“However, Texas and Alabama are completely different in their setup,” Cavanaugh continued. “Alabama Power is the largest power utility in Alabama, and it is a regulated utility. The other utilities that produce electricity in Alabama are TVA, which is a federal-run utility — it is a quasi-government-run utility in North Alabama. We also have some cities that have their own system. They’re called municipals. And then, there are co-ops in some of your rural areas. In fact, I believe Baldwin County has some co-ops. And so, those are run by their members.”

“We regulate Alabama Power Company, which many of your listeners in Mobile have,” she added. “They are regulated. In Texas, 90% of their power is not regulated. In other words, they are deregulated, is what the industry calls it. And after reading this — I think the easiest way to put this is when you’re regulated, we look at everything as how do we protect the people, or how do we protect the customers. In a non-regulated arena, it is how do you protect the profits of these companies.”

According to Cavanaugh, the difference in governing utilities makes such a scenario that Texas faced less likely in Alabama.

“There’s just a completely different philosophy in the two,” she said. “And one of the things in a regulated environment like Alabama Power Company, we always want to weigh things on how it will affect customers. We do that through — is it reliable for consumers? And is it affordable? They have to present to us, I say, on a monthly basis, but it is actually a continual basis. They are audited. And we ensure they do what it takes to be able to handle the load, no matter what the load problems may be.”

Cavanaugh also explained how that given Texas is on its own grid, which covers 90% of that state, prevents it from bringing power in from other states, which is a protection that exists with Alabama’s electric utilities.

She added that there is also less of an incentive to undergo the expensive effort of winterizing in a deregulated environment like Texas.

@Jeff_Poor is a graduate of Auburn University and the University of South Alabama, the editor of Breitbart TV, a columnist for Mobile’s Lagniappe Weekly, and host of Mobile’s “The Jeff Poor Show” from 9 a.m.-12 p.m. on FM Talk 106.5.