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.”
— AG Steve Marshall (@AGSteveMarshall) May 30, 2019
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