The members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles aren’t doing their jobs. In July, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was charged with the brutal killings of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Martin’s 7-year-old great-grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, in Guntersville. Spencer, a man with a violent rap sheet going back to the early 1980s, had been granted parole by the Board in November of 2017 and released from prison in January.
The Spencer case is one among many instances where the Board of Pardons and Paroles has made the wrong call. District attorneys, law enforcement officers, and victims of crime are rightfully angry with the Board’s decisions to allow even murderers to go free, including some who have served as little as six years in prison. In some cases, the Board has paroled violent offenders (some of whom had troubling incarceration records) much earlier than its own rules and regulations recommend. That is frightening, and the lackadaisical response from the Board to critics’ questions about Jimmy O’Neal Spencer and other cases is unacceptable.
I understand that the failure of an individual part can shroud an entire system in doubt. But the recent news of poor decision-making by the Board of Pardons and Paroles should not take away from the significant improvements that Alabama has gradually made to its criminal justice system over the past few years.
Beginning in 2013, the State Legislature passed a series of reforms to change the punishment structure for non-violent offenders to ensure more fair and uniform sentencing. The underpinning philosophy behind Alabama’s change in sentencing was to divert non-violent offenders from prison, thereby reserving scarce prison space and resources for more serious and violent offenders. Why was that necessary? Alabama’s prisons were dangerously overcrowded, with the prison population rising to 192 percent of recommended capacity levels. Indeed, by 2015, Alabama faced the worst prison overcrowding-crisis in the country.
Thankfully, the legislative reforms started in 2013 have been effective: Alabama’s prison population has decreased by more than twenty percent since the sentencing changes were implemented, and data from 2017 indicate that violent crime is leveling off, too.
Recent improvements to community supervision programs hold the potential to further improve public safety. I am optimistic that these reforms, paired with the hiring of extra probation and parole officers, will gradually reduce recidivism in Alabama. But the truth is that legislation alone will not solve our criminal justice problems—the policies must be implemented correctly and properly funded to accomplish lasting change.
The Board of Pardons and Paroles has to be a part of a comprehensive solution, rather than a cause of problems, for the state’s criminal justice system. Thankfully, Governor Kay Ivey has directed the Board to produce a corrective action plan, and she has also designated a new chairman of the Board.
As a State Senator, I am closely watching the response to Governor Ivey’s directive. The Board of Pardons and Paroles must and will be held accountable. The Board has an essential role to play in Alabama’s criminal justice system—but as the case of Jimmy O’Neal Spencer tragically illustrates, errors in judgement by the Board’s members can have catastrophic consequences.
Cam Ward represents District 14 in the Alabama State Senate, which includes all or parts of Shelby, Bibb, and Chilton counties. He serves as Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @SenCamWard