Ala. parole rate drops by half since Jimmy Spencer case

The public outcry since the tragedy has reduced the rate of inmates approved for parole by almost half


Mike Cason
Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — The brutal murders of two women and a child in northeast Alabama last year are driving change to Alabama’s parole system and sharp divisions in the State House.

Parolee Jimmy O’Neal Spencer is charged with killing Marie Kitchens Martin, 74; her great grandson, Colton Ryan Lee, 7; and a neighbor, Martha Dell Reliford, 65; in Guntersville last year.

The slayings came about six months after Spencer, who had a long criminal record, was released on parole after being labeled as low-to-medium risk to commit another crime.

The public outcry since the tragedy has reduced the rate of inmates approved for parole by almost half.

A bill moving through the Legislature, backed by Attorney General Steve Marshall, would put the executive director of the Board of Pardons and Paroles, an agency that employs hundreds of parole officers and other state employees involved in supervising offenders, under the direct authority of the governor.

Critics of the plan say it’s not a practical answer to the tragedy and would add political influence into the parole process. Parole Board Chair Lyn Head defends the board’s work and opposes the change.

“We are heartbroken over what happened to Mrs. Reliford, Mrs. Martin and Colton Lee,” Head told the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday. “But I submit to you that none of the measures in this bill would give any of us a crystal ball.”

Head said the Spencer case has caused the board to grant fewer paroles. In fiscal year 2018, which ended last September, the board granted parole for 3,732 inmates out of 6,996 who were considered, or 53 percent.

From November 2018 through March 2019, the board has granted 685 paroles out of 2,324 considered, or 29 percent. Head said board members have denied inmates who meet the criteria that their training indicates would make them good candidates for release. She said the board is trying to respond to the concerns of the public.

“Frankly, personally, I’m a little skittish about a lot of grants,” Head said. “And I should be. It’s not that I wasn’t paying attention before. But I mean, it’s a lot more, not time-consuming, just it’s hard. It’s hard to grant parole right now because of Jimmy Spencer.”

The committee approved the bill on a 6-5 vote after a spirited public hearing. It could win final passage in the Senate as early as today and go to Gov. Kay Ivey, who supports the concept and could sign it into law.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Connie Rowe, R-Jasper, is retired from a career in law enforcement and was Jasper’s police chief. Rowe said the Spencer case is just one example of mistakes at the agency that demand a way to make it more directly answerable to the governor.

“Ninety-five percent of the people that we send to prison come out of prison,” Rowe told the Judiciary Committee. “And I appreciate that. And I’m for that. I’m worried about the Jimmy O’Neal Spencer kind of guy. Who gets out and goes to Guntersville and kills three people six months after release while the system failed to release him properly, failed to supervise him properly.”

Two former inmates, a minister and others spoke at the hearing and urged the committee to reject the bill. Maureen Morris traveled from Indianapolis to speak on behalf of her husband, Ira Morris, who has served 23 years of a 30-year sentence for murder in Alabama prisons.

Maureen Morris said her husband was scheduled for parole consideration last November. But in the wake of the Guntersville slayings, Gov. Kay Ivey placed a moratorium on early parole consideration. That delayed parole consideration for Ira Morris to November 2020, his wife said.

In the meantime, she fears for his safety in a prison system that U.S. Department of Justice alleges is so violent that it violates the Constitution. She described to the committee two assaults on her husband, who is 5-feet-5 inches and weighs 185 pounds, by other prisoners. One attack sent him to a hospital with stab wounds. In the other incident, she said he was punished for protecting himself against an attack by his cellmate.

“No guard was around to defend him,” Maureen Morris told the committee. “No guard was there to see about him until time to write the disciplinary report. They both was charged with a disciplinary with a weapon. My husband spent six months in solitary confinement for defending himself.”

Sen. Linda Coleman-Madison of Birmingham was one of five Democrats on the Judiciary Committee who opposed the bill.

“We need to try to fix what the issue is rather than putting a blanket and penalizing everybody,” Coleman-Madison said before the committee approved the bill on a 6-5 party-line vote.

“I don’t want to further politicize the penal system,” Coleman-Madison said.

Proponents of the measure said it would not politicize the parole decisions of the three board members but would enable them to focus more on those decisions because oversight of the executive director would move from them to the governor.

Alabama to pay $1 million to families of Jimmy Spencer’s alleged murder victims

The families allege Alabama wrongfully paroled and failed to supervise Spencer, resulting in the deaths of Martha Dell Reliford, 65, Marie Kitchens Martin, 74, and Colton Ryan Lee, 7.

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©2019 Alabama Media Group, Birmingham

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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