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Since 2013, the parole release rate in Alabama has increased by 24%. In 2013, the release rate was 30%. In 2017, the release rate jumped up to 54%.
WAAY31's I-team is continuing to dig into the parole board after a man who was supposed to be serving a life sentence was paroled. He now stands accused of killing three people in Guntersville.
Jimmy Spencer was paroled in January 2018 and was supposed to stay at a mission center in Birmingham for six months. Instead, he walked away after three weeks. The Jimmie Hale Missions Center told WAAY31 they contacted the state when Spencer walked away. Spencer was then written citations in May for misdemeanor offenses at Guntersville State Park. In June, he was then arrested on drug charges by Sardis police, they told us they notified the state as well.
Spencer is now behind bars in Marshall County facing more than three capital murder charges.
The Alabama Pardon and Parole Board is made up of three people who are appointed by the Governor. They serve in six year terms. According to parole documents, in 2017 their parole rate was at 54%.
Officials with the Alabama Pardon and Parole Board, told WAAY31 they hear about 6,500 cases a year. If you look at the data (pg. 48), they have paroled 1,000 more people in 2017 than they did in 2016.
"I saw more people paroled in the first six months into this new system than I did in 15 years," said Janette Grantham, the director of a non-profit named VOCAL.
Grantham makes regular trips to parole hearings as a victims advocate for VOCAL. VOCAL stands for victims of crime and leniency, the non-profit has been successful in getting victims rights laws passed in the state. They also do a variety of things for victims, like assisting them with parole hearings.
"The three people that sit on that board is the most powerful people in the state because they can override anything a judge does," said Grantham.
The parole board told us their parole rates have increased over the years but align with the national average.
"The board does around 50% of approvals which is consistent with the national average," said Darrell Morgan, the Alabama Pardon and Parole Board Assistant Executive Director.
Morgan said for security and logistical reasons inmates do not show up in person for their parole hearings. He said the board has an extensive file on each inmate with any disciplinary actions, a persons complete history, victim letters, and more. He said before a parole hearing other things take place behind the scenes.
"There is a personal interview with the inmate by our institutional parole officers giving a personal history of that individual, any updated living arrangements, job plans anything along those lines," said Morgan.
When we were in Montgomery it took the board maybe five minutes total on each case. Some of the people paroled were convicted murders. Morgan tells us each board member goes over a potential parolee's case file before the hearing ever takes place. He says their parole rates have increased, becasue of additional funding to hire more parole officers.
"The board felt more comfortable letting people out because of the fact that we are better able to supervise them and we are better able to provide them services things we weren't able to do previously," said Morgan.
The board also uses an analytical tool now to determine an inmates rate of re-offending. The reasons for letting someone out looks like this, a checklist.
Many, including Grantham, feel like the analytical tool takes out personal judgement when considering someone for parole.
"You need more than a check mark on a piece of paper. Use that as a tool but put a human element into that," said Grantham.
Morgan said the checklist gives clear lines on the boards decision. Grantham believes it's creating a lack of confidence in the board to make the best decision for the public.
"Where before they thought their crime was so hideous no one would possibly parole them they don't have that security anymore," said Grantham.
Morgan said the board understands why people are upset and said the murders in Guntersville are a tragedy.