Parole Denied for 90% of Alabama Inmates, a New Low (copy)

KIM CHANDLER Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Alabama — Seventy-one-year-old Leola Harris is wheelchair-bound, on dialysis three times a week, and has end-stage renal disease, her attorney said. After serving 19 years of a 35-year murder sentence, the frail woman poses no threat to anyone and should be released into a nursing home to spend her final days, he argued.

The Alabama Parole Board disagreed and denied her parole last week after a brief hearing. She will not be eligible to play again until 2028.

The number of paroled state inmates in Alabama has dropped to a new low, with 90% of eligible inmates being rejected in the past fiscal year, according to agency reports. Critics of the denial say the board doesn’t follow its policies and denial has become the default decision.

“This denial is an injustice and a waste of taxpayers’ money,” said former Alabama Chief Justice Sue Bell Cobb, who now chairs Redemption Earned, who represented Harris. The group is a nonprofit law firm that represents elderly and sick inmates the organization believes are worthy of release.

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“They should ask if someone was appropriately punished. She’s 71 and has served 19 years with no offenses in 12 years,” Cobb said. “Then the next question is: do they pose a threat to public safety? The woman is in a wheelchair and cannot even go to the toilet by herself. She’s dying and they just denied her parole. It’s an injustice. It’s embarrassing.”

Harris’ parole was denied by Victims of Crime and Leniency, an advocacy group for victims and their families, and the Attorney General’s Office. They opposed Harris’ release because she was convicted of murder.

Harris was convicted of the 2001 murder of Lennell Norris, who was found dead at her kitchen table. Harris testified at her trial that Norris was a friend who often came to her house at night, but claimed she did not shoot him and that someone else was at the house that night.

According to records from the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, the three-member board granted parole to 409 inmates and denied 3,593 others in the fiscal year ended Sept. 30. The 10% grant rate is a fraction of what it was in previous years and comes after four straight years of decline. In fiscal 2019, the ratio was 31% before falling to 20% in 2020 and 15% in 2021.

Parole Board Chair Leigh Gwathney declined to comment on questions tabled by an agency spokesman.

State MP Chris England, who has called for changes to the board, argued that political concerns are driving the limited releases.

“People driving this process where we’re not releasing anyone are more concerned about headlines than public safety,” said England, D-Tuscaloosa.

Leah Nelson, research director for the nonprofit Alabama Appleseed Center for Law and Justice, said the state is creating “conditions for incineration” in prisons that the US Department of Justice says are already among the most violent in the country.

“We have a parole board that obviously finds that nobody is meeting the standard that they have in mind. Nobody has hope. We have a desperation machine,” Nelson said.

Policies were introduced in 2020, including a rating system to determine whether publication is recommended. According to state records, the board complied with the guidelines about 30% of the time.

Cam Ward, executive director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, said the guidelines are just that.

“The law says it’s up to the board of directors. You have absolute discretion,” Ward said.

He cautioned against comparing parole rates to pre-2019 years due to sentencing changes.

A horrific crime in northern Alabama led to changes in the Alabama Parole Board. In 2018, eight months after Jimmy O’Neal Spencer was paroled, he was accused of killing three people, including a seven-year-old and his grandmother. In 2019, Alabama Governor Kay Ivey signed legislation revising the board appointment process into law.

“If these people are upset about the number of parolees, they should come every day and listen to the horrific crimes they have committed. They would understand why these violent offenders should be serving their sentences,” Janette Grantham, executive director of Victims of Crime and Leniency, wrote in an email.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall defended the low parole rate.

“By law, the board’s primary duty is to ensure public safety — not to appease the anti-incarceration community,” his office said in a statement released through a spokesman.

Stacy George, a former correctional officer who has been open about prison conditions, said he believes the board should hear from inmates directly, at least remotely via computer, and learn more about their circumstances. Individuals who are eligible for parole in Alabama do not currently appear before the board.

“There are people who never really need to get out of prison, but there are people who need to get out and get a second chance,” George said.

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