House Judiciary Committee approves stripped-down parole bill

Legislation allows parole applicants to virtually attend hearings

By: - April 27, 2023 6:59 am

Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, speaks with a colleague prior to the start of the session of the Alabama House of Representatives on Tuesday, March 14, 2023. He was one of the few lawmakers who was critical of the bill reducing good time incentives for people incarcerated. (Stew Milne for Alabama Reflector)

The House Judiciary Committee Wednesday approved a bill to allow inmates to attend their parole hearings virtually and hear the proceedings taking place.

But HB 228, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, D-Tuscaloosa, only won approval after a subcommittee stripped more ambitious elements from the bill, including provisions to require the Board of Pardons and Paroles to consider an applicant’s medical condition.

“It is a step forward,” England said after the meeting. “At least they will know if someone is dead or alive. In all seriousness though, having a person attend the parole hearing will give the board a perspective on the situation they would not otherwise have.”

The original version of the bill would have required the Board to consider releasing a person 50 years or older who has served at least 10 years in prison no more than two years after denying that individual parole.

It would have also required the board to provide a plan for those individuals to receive parole, and for the board to consider the health of the inmate in their decision.

A subcommittee of the House Judiciary Committee stripped all of the provisions except the ability of parole applicants to attend hearings.

This bill is England’s most recent attempt at reforming Alabama’s parole system. Earlier in the session England sponsored HB 16, creating a Criminal Justice Policy Development Council to establish parole guidelines that the Board would follow when making decisions for granting parole.

The Board would have to give reasons for deviating from the guidelines, and allow those denied parole because of deviation to appeal the decision.

England has publicly criticized the Board and how it exercises its discretion for deciding parole.

The Board has come under scrutiny in recent years for the drop off in parole rates, going from nearly half several years ago to about 10% in 2022. It is on pace for an even lower rate this year.

Criminal justice reform advocates said they were grateful the bill got out, even in its limited version.

“Alabama is one of the only states in the nation in which parole-eligible individuals are not able to attend their own parole hearings,” said Julia Cleveland, the administrative assistant with Redemption Earned, a nonprofit that helps people who are incarcerated with parole.

Cleveland said there is a different element to the parole hearing if applicants are allowed to attend.

“I think it is very easy to see people as their criminal record, or see them as their past,” she said. “Actually looking at them, and seeing this person is 20 years older and has gone through different programs, earned degrees, and is actually a different person. I feel like it humanizes them. They are no longer judged for their crimes but for who they are.”

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Ralph Chapoco
Ralph Chapoco

Ralph Chapoco covers state politics as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. His main responsibility is the criminal justice system in Alabama.