I-Team: Alabama Attorney General says parole bills are vital for public safety

Parole bills could be voted on this week.

Posted: May 7, 2019 5:04 PM
Updated: May 7, 2019 10:14 PM

The WAAY 31 I-team learned bills to fix Alabama's broken parole system could be decided on as soon as Wednesday.

Both House Bill 380 (read the bill here), sponsored by Rep. Connie Rowe, and Senate Bill 42 (read the bill here), sponsored by Sen. Cam Ward, made it out of their committees. Lawmakers are currently deciding when House Bill 380 will be heard on the floor for a big vote. It could move to the floor on Wednesday or Thursday. It's unclear when Senate Bill 42 will move for a vote.

On Tuesday, WAAY 31 caught up with Attorney General Steve Marshall, who is one of the driving forces pushing for change at the parole board. Parole board executives have argued no changes are needed.

Marshall said he is thoroughly disappointed with parole board leadership for fighting the bills. House Bill 380 and Senate Bill 42 would bring changes to early parole, victim notification, tracking of parolees and executive leadership. Marshall said he is more upset at the director's decision to tell employees to use tax payer time to contest these bills.

Pardon and Parole Board Executive Director, Eddie Cook, sent an email to all employees saying the bills were bad for the agency and the state. He then told employees they could drive their state vehicles to Montgomery to voice their opinions on the bills.

"Asking them on state time when they need to be working on public safety issues in their communities using tax dollars to come to Montgomery to oppose what is a common sense appropriate bill in this state is a very disappointing action," said Marshall.

We asked Marshall if Cook violated any laws by sending that email.

"Not going to speak to that at all," said Marshall.

Marshall said he cannot comment on any investigation or likelihood of an investigation over Cook's email. Parole board chairperson, Lyn Head, sent a similar email and wrote the board was under attack.

"Very surprised, number one, to see the efforts in which the leadership of the pardon and parole bills is pushed back, but yet it is reflective of what Governor Ivey and I have recognized over the last several months is that we need to make sure there is accountability in that agency," said Marshall.

Marshall said that accountability starts with House Bill 380 and Senate Bill 42. Cook and Head call them bad for the state. Lawmakers said the bills will hold the board more accountable, stop early paroles, give the governor more oversite and strengthen victim notification.

"I think, from what we've seen from your reporting and our investigation that we've done and the victims we've talked to, there are clearly areas that need to be greatly improved, and we think the bill itself creates the framework for that to occur," said Marshall.

Our reporting discovered the parole board bringing up inmates for early parole hearings, and a career criminal who was serving a life sentence is one example. The board called Jimmy Spencer a good inmate with a low probability to break the law again. He’s now charged with killing three people in Guntersville. Marshall said these errors are why changes are needed to fix what lawmakers call a broken system.

"When we understand that public safety is critical, when we're looking at supervision of inmates from our correctional facilities, we need to do it better and this is one way to be able to do that," said Marshall.

As a part of its deal with the governor and attorney general, the parole board must release monthly status reports to show where it is making improvements. Its most recent status report came out Monday. The parole board said it fixed its website, reinforced proper calculations of parole hearings, is working with a consulting firm to go over officers' case loads, is continuing to do mandatory staff training in these areas and is working with an advisory board of victims' advocacy groups as well as local law enforcement.

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