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I-Team: The state didn't place Jimmy Spencer in high risk category to re-offend

Jimmy Spencer, who is now charged with murdering three people after he was paroled, was given a low to medium chance of re-offending again by an analytical tool developed in Ohio.

Posted: Dec. 13, 2018 4:43 PM
Updated: Dec. 13, 2018 7:02 PM

The WAAY 31 I-Team went straight to the man who helped create and develop a tool that let a criminal serving a life sentence out on parole.

We wanted to know how the program could consider Jimmy Spencer, a career criminal, at a low to medium risk to re-offend. He's now charged with killing three people in Guntersville.

The Ohio Risk Assessment System, also known as ORAS, is supposed to look into every aspect of a criminal's past, present and future to predict the chances of committing another crime. Ohio uses it as part of a ten step process. Alabama uses it only twice.

Dr. Ed Latessa, the leading researcher and developer of the tool, said it's not full proof and it only works if the correct data is entered into it.

"First of all, it's just a tool. It doesn't make decisions. People make decisions," said Latessa, who works as a professor at the University of Cinnicanatti in the Criminal Justice School.

Latessa said the goal of ORAS is simple.

"We're trying to predict in this case, recidivism," said Latessa.

Latessa helped create the tool to track, and more importantly, rehabilitate criminals from the time they're convicted until they're released. He explained Ohio's parole board uses ORAS from the moment someone is convicted until it's time to decide if an inmate is ready for parole.

"It looks at their risk factors and so you might be high risk because you use drugs, you don't have a job and you hang around with people like yourself," said Latessa. "I might be high risk because what I think I do is okay and I have no family support."

Alabama's Parole Board uses ORAS a little differently. The board only uses it when considering parole and the criminals likelihood to re-offend. They also use it to determine how much supervision someone gets after being paroled. Latessa said what ORAS should've looked at when evaluating parole for Jimmy Spencer.

"The tool would have looked at his criminal history. It would look at his criminal thinking and patterns, and it sounds like he would have scored high in both," said Latessa.

But Spencer, who had over 50 disciplinary offenses in prison, didn't score as a high risk offender. The state admits it's unclear if the parole board even entered the right information into the tool at this point.

"It just assumes the information is correct. It assumes the person doing the tool has been trained and is filling it out properly," said Latessa.

Bobby Longshore was on the Parole Board when people from Ohio came to train members on ORAS. Longshore, who quit in 2016, said he immediately had doubts.

"She said this will make it easier to parole the hard cases and that just astonished me. It should never be easy to parole the hard cases," said Longshore.

Latessa agreed and questioned why Alabama's relying so heavily on ORAS instead of hearing from criminals, victims and families.

"First of all, there is no one size fits all with assessment. When you get a case that's an outlier, it's really incumbent on the system to look at as much as you can before they make that decision, because they are putting the public at risk," said Latessa.

WAAY 31 found several cases where the public was put at risk by parole board decisions. The biggest mistake was the board releasing Jimmy Spencer who is charged with killing Martha Reliford, Marie Martin and seven-year-old Colton Lee.

The murders happened in July on Mulberry Street in Guntersville. Spencer is currently being held at the Kilby Correctional Facility in South Alabama. Spencer will be back in Marshall County in March for a hearing and mental evaluation.

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