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WAAY 31 I-TEAM: New Alabama parole board leadership tackles a number of issues

Judge Charles Graddick is working on relocating the parole board, having better training for employees and getting in compliance with the new parole law.

Posted: Oct 4, 2019 4:31 PM
Updated: Oct 4, 2019 7:52 PM

The WAAY 31 I-TEAM is digging deeper into the issues identified at Alabama's Board of Pardons and Paroles by the man the governor put in charge to fix the broken system.

Charles Graddick took charge one month ago and immediately went to work fixing the issues the WAAY 31 I-TEAM first uncovered more than a year ago, and more he found.

Some of the things Graddick is changing include more training for employees on the new parole law, safety upgrades for parole officers, a new website and moving to a new facility.

Graddick was too busy fixing issues at the parole board, so instead, we sat down with the members of his team to find out about more changes that are coming.

After years of talk from the prior parole board leadership, there is now a new parole website with tons of information about parole hearings and more.

"They can go to our website and find out about any parole hearings that are set up. They will not only see the hearings that are scheduled for the future, but they will also see a list of any hearings that had to be postponed for any reason," said Terry Abbott, the parole board's new communications director, who came in with Graddick's team.

Abbott said another feature of the website is a new 'absconder alert.' Anytime a parolee leaves a residential facility, there is supposed to be an alert that goes out.

"Within 12 hours, we're supposed to notify police, sheriff's departments and counties involved in these manners, and we're doing that," said Abbott.

Right now, the current parole board department is located in downtown Montgomery at 301 South Ripley Street, but the entire department will gradually be moving to 100 Capital Commerce Boulevard.

"In the middle of this month, some of the offices will move to the new facility," said Abbott.

Abbott said right now, the parole board's offices and branches are spread throughout Montgomery, which leads to communication issues. In the new building, everyone will be under one roof.

"Anytime you can bring your entire team together in one facility, it definitely makes things run smoother," said Abbott.

The new location is about a 16 minute drive from the downtown Montgomery location. The lease at the new building will save taxpayers $6 a square foot.

Abbott said another good thing about the new location is that it has tons of parking. The downtown Montgomery location doesn't, which can add more stress to families who are coming to parole hearings.

For now, the plan is to start holding parole hearings at the new location in January.

"We hear frequently from families that are coming down for these hearings that they are getting tickets from police, that they don't have a place to park. It's costing them a lot of money out of the tickets they get. Out at the new place, everybody parks for free," said Abbott.

Abbott said Graddick has also discovered safety issues for parole officers out in the field. Currently, many of the parole officers' vehicles don't have dividers like you see in cop cars. Graddick is working on upgrading parole officers' vehicles so they have this safety mechanism.

"Many of our officers, when they go pick someone up, they are having to drive them around in cars that don't offer any protection for parole officers," said Abbott.

Parole employees are going through extensive training on the parole law, ensuring every victim is properly notified and no violent inmates come up for early parole. The board is also hiring more attorneys and parole officers.

"We've got to have people looking at these cases to make sure we're following the law," said Abbott.

That's something that was lacking under the prior parole board leadership of Executive Director Eddie Cook and Lyn Head, the woman Governor Kay Ivey promoted to fix problems last year. That's why Graddick postponed 627 hearings recently. At least 23 of those are North Alabama cases.

"Many of them would have been illegal had we gone ahead," said Abbott.

Attorney General Steve Marshall, who pushed for the parole law, said things are moving in the right direction.

"A victim's voice is critical for that board to be able to hear and those decisions for public safety and the fact that, that agency was not compliant with the law is reflective of what we've been saying all along, and there was systemic problems that needed to be fixed, and we believe we're on the right course of getting that done," said Marshall.

Parole hearings will start back November 5th. Former Executive Director Eddie Cook, Assistant Executive Director Chris Norman and Personnel Director Belinda Johnson were all placed on mandatory leave at the beginning of September pending disciplinary proceedings.

Abbott couldn't go into detail on what led to the three being placed on leave, but they were the people in place who had four months to get in compliance with the new parole law and did nothing. Those parole hearings were postponed so victims could be properly notified.

The WAAY 31 I-TEAM learned this week that Cook and Norman will not be coming back to their jobs at the parole board. They are using their annual leave they have saved up to reach their retirement dates. Belinda Johnson will have a hearing to determine her job status.

The former parole board chairperson, Lyn Head, resigned. Her last day was October 1st. Head will be replaced by Leigh Gwathney.

Gwathney's first day will be October 16th. She has a long history of being a strict but fair prosecutor. She currently works at the Attorney General's Office.

The WAAY 31 I-TEAM started investigating the parole board's policies and procedures in July 2018, after the murders of three people in Guntersville by a parolee. We learned that Jimmy Spencer was a career criminal serving a life sentence. While he was in prison, documents showed he remained to be a violent person. Yet, he was paroled.

Spencer's victim in a previous case from Franklin County was never notified about his parole hearing, despite being properly notified in 2008 and 2013.

After Spencer was let out of prison in January 2018, he was paroled to a halfway house in Birmingham, where he easily walked away after being there for three weeks. The halfway house told WAAY 31 a little over a year ago that they alerted the parole board about Spencer absconding, but couldn't provide proof of the letter.

A few months later in June 2018, Spencer was arrested on drug charges, resisting arrest and attempting to elude by Sardis police. Those charges should have sent him back behind bars, because it was a huge parole violation.

Sardis police told WAAY 31 they alerted Spencer's parole officer, but not action was taken, and legally, they had to let him go.

Weeks later, Spencer was arrested for the murders of Colton Lee, 7, his great grandmother, Marie Martin, and Martin's neighbor, Martha Reliford. Spencer is currently back behind bars awaiting his trial.

Spencer's victims were awarded a settlement by the state for the flaws that led to the brutal crime.

For the past year, the I-TEAM has sent Governor Ivey's office at least 50 interview requests to have a sitdown talk with her about the parole board. All of those requests have been denied. Most recently, her team told us she'd never do a sitdown interview with us on the parole issues, but couldn't give a clear reason as to why. Our offer still stands.

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