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Ala. parole director says early inmate release can work with supervision

A total of 513 inmates have been released under the new law and 24 have been rearrested for new offenses


Mike Cason

By Mike Cason

MONTGOMERY, Ala. — The application of a state law requiring more Alabama prison inmates to be released early under supervision got off to a rocky start in January, but Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles Director Cam Ward said he believes it is generally working well and can be effective in reducing the likelihood that those released will return to prison.

The law requires the state to release some inmates for a designated period ranging from three months to one year before their sentences end. They must wear an ankle device for electronic monitoring and follow other requirements set by the parole board.

The Legislature first approved mandatory supervised release in 2015, but it applied only to inmates convicted after that time. In 2021, the Legislature expanded it to cover inmates convicted before 2015. That change took effect Jan. 31, 2023 and resulted in the release of hundreds of inmates in a short period, which some law enforcement officials and others said came as a surprise and cause for alarm.

In an interview last week, Ward said the bureau spent 18 months preparing for the expansion of supervised release.

“We did an internal task force with officers, administrators, supervisors, that created an electronic monitoring group,” Ward said. “Officers that will be involved in electronic monitoring got special training. We did training, preparation, and understanding of what was coming. How you would respond at the 3 o’clock in the morning call, which is the one you’re always worried about? For 18 months, we worked on that. And I think that’s paid good dividends.”

Ward said 513 inmates have been released under the new law. Twenty-four have been rearrested for new offenses. Ward said those were mostly drug crimes with some property crimes. He said none were violent offenses. Ward said another 35 who have been released have reached the end of their sentences, meaning they are no longer subject to monitoring.

The intent of the law is to help former inmates adjust to life outside prison and reduce the likelihood that they will commit new crimes. Ward said national statistics show that people under supervision are less likely to break the law than those who are released at the end of their sentences with no supervision.

The law requires these periods of mandatory release before the end of sentence:

  • For sentences of five years or less, three to five months.
  • For sentences of more than 5 years but less than 10 years, six to nine months.
  • For sentences of 10 years or more, 10 months to 12 months.

Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall has been a critic of the early release law. Marshall filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court asking for a temporary restraining order to block the release of inmates unless the Alabama Department of Corrections had notified crime victims, as required under the early release law. ADOC Commissioner John Hamm gave an affidavit saying that ADOC would not release any inmate without the required victim notification. Because of that assurance, Montgomery County Circuit Judge Jimmy Pool denied Marshall’s request for a temporary restraining order. Pool ruled that he would leave the case open for 60 days to monitor the agreement.

In a recent interview on the Alabama Public Television show Capitol Journal, Marshall said he supported the concept of supervision after release. But Marshall said he would prefer a policy more like the federal system, which places inmates under supervision after they complete their sentence. Marshall said the expanded number of inmates released early because of the 2021 law included a substantial number of violent offenders. He questioned whether the parole bureau has enough officers to effectively supervise the increased numbers.

“What I would love us to be able to look at is, what should sentencing be in Alabama?” Marshall said. “What does a sentence actually mean when that judge says to an individual, ‘You’re going to serve X number of years.’ And then how do we then allow for public safety to be enhanced consistent with this idea before, supervision occurring, but occurring once somebody has paid their debt back to society through the service of that sentence.”

“Let’s make sure we’re looking at the entire spectrum of criminal justice and how do we do sentencing well,” Marshall said.

The bill expanding mandatory supervised release passed during a special session in 2021, the same session during which lawmakers approved building two new men’s prisons. Gov. Kay Ivey supported the bill and included it in the call for the special session. The bill was one of the recommendations of the Governor’s Study Group in Criminal Justice Policy, which reported that reducing recidivism was the long-term solution to Alabama’s problem of overcrowded and understaffed prisons.

Sen. Chris Elliott, a Republican from Baldwin County, is sponsoring a new bill that would delay any further use of the mandatory release law until 2030. Elliott was one of six senators to vote against expanding mandatory supervised release in 2021.

There were 911 inmates released on mandatory supervised release in fiscal year 2022, before the new law took effect that expanded it to include those convicted before 2015. Ward said the difference under the new law is that a larger number are being released. He said that will begin to level off by late summer.

In the meantime, Ward said he knows that a serious criminal act by one of the inmates released early could spark a heavy backlash. He said he hopes that any changes to the policy are based on the overall results.

“I just believe data should govern our policy,” Ward said. “Sometimes emotion tends to dictate what happens in criminal justice. But I think the data shows that so far our officers are doing a very good job and we’re managing it well.

“Now there’s always going to be problems. And again, tomorrow, there could be a problem. We have to be prepared to deal with it. But I think our preparation helped our officers be ready for this.”

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