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Our WAAY31 I-team investigation into the Alabama Pardon and Parole Board uncovered serious flaws in the system.
Because of these flaws, Attorney General Steve Marshall and lawmakers introduced sweeping legislation on Wednesday to fix a broken system.
"In January 2018, Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, a violent offender sentenced to life imprisonment, was released from prison after being recklessly and wrongfully paroled by the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles,” said Marshall. "Months later, Spencer brutally murdered two women and a 7-year-old boy in their homes. This tragic failure of our justice system should have never happened —and cannot ever be allowed to happen again."
This legislation is by Sen. Cam Ward and Rep. Connie Rowe. The legislation will tackle the Parole Board in six categories from how the board is appointed to victim notification.
In a press release about the new legislation, the Attorney General's office said: “Under the reform legislation sponsored by Senator Ward and Representative Rowe, the process by which the Governor appoints Board members would be made more in line with the Governor’s standing appointment authority for other boards, with Senate confirmation. The legislation creates the position of ‘Director of Pardons and Paroles’ who would serve as the agency head, while the Board would retain its independent judicial function of granting or denying parole and issuing pardons. The legislation codifies the Board’s existing policies on parole consideration dates. The bill also strengthens the Board’s duty to provide notice to victims. These changes are designed to increase accountability, set clear parameters, and make certain that no prisoner who is a threat to public safety can slip through the cracks."
WAAY31 sat down with Marshall to discuss the legislation.
"This bill is designed to remind those three individuals who serve on the board that their paramount concern needs to be public safety," he said.
Under this new legislation, Marshall said the governor would have more power over the Pardons and Parole Board and directly appoint members instead of having to appoint members from a list selected by the Alabama Senate.
"Right now that is an agency that is accountable to no one. We believe they should be accountable to the governor and the people of the state," said Marshall.
Former Parole Board member Bobby Longshore, who is now appointed to be Gov. Kay Ivey's eyes and ears at the parole board, said this proposed legislation changes how the board currently operates.
"The amendments to the structure are fairly dramatic," said Longshore.
This new legislation would create a position called the "Director of Pardons and Paroles." In this new position the director would serve and be appointed by the governor. Longshore said this is a good thing because it makes the three board members solely focus on cases.
"Everything else such as the running of this multimillion dollar organization called the Board of Pardons and Paroles is taken off their plate and dealt with strictly in an administrative capacity. They can focus on exactly what that job is," said Longshore.
This bill basically stops early parole hearings and says if an inmate is serving back-to-back (consecutive) sentences they will have to be paroled on one sentence at a time, which means it would take them a long time to get out of prison. Longshore said this will effect the entire criminal justice system in the state of Alabama.
"Judges will have to determine do I really mean for this person to die in prison," said Longshore.
These changes will strengthen victim notification, too, by extending victim notification not just to immediate family but also to anyone who is interested in a specific case. The Pardons and Parole Board also have to show proof they did everything they could to reach a victim's family and tell them about a parole hearing. No inmate will be granted a parole hearing unless everyone has been contacted and they parole board can show proof that they did everything they could to contact a victim's family.
"This statue requires them to have a due diligence certification that they have done their due diligence to find these people," said Longshore.
This legislation also says the Pardons and Parole Board can't make up their own rules or policy without consent from the state. Marshall said he believes this bill will be passed swiftly and signed into law.
WAAY31 began looking into the parole board's policies and procedures after it paroled a violent man serving a life sentence for crimes he committed in the Shoals. WAAY31 spent months filing open records requests to the state about Jimmy Spencer.
We were able to uncover that the parole board never notified Spencer's victim in Franklin County about his 2017 parole hearing, but the victim was notified for hearings in 2008 and 2013. At those, the victim asked the board to keep Spencer behind bars. The parole board later said it misinterpreted the law and that's why the victim wasn't notified in 2017.
After Spencer was paroled he walked away from a halfway house he was supposed to be at for six months. According to documents, his parole officer thought Spencer was still at the halfway house. Spencer was then arrested in June by Sardis police for attempting to elude, resisting arrest, and drug charges. Sardis police said they notified Spencer's parole officer but nothing was done and Spencer walked away. Weeks later he was arrested for killing Colton Lee, Marie Martin and Martha Reliford in Guntersville.
Marshall said the system of checks and balances were in place and someone failed to do their job and that's how Spencer slipped through the cracks. The state said Spencer should have never been paroled to start with.
WAAY31 also uncovered Spencer's reports while he was in prison. He had some 50 disciplinary actions against him for stabbings, fights, and assaulting correctional officers.