The releases of thousands of criminals from Alabama prisons will have an impact far beyond former convicts committing new offenses, judges and prosecutors predict. The Mobile Register says officials worry that early paroles will weaken one of their best tools to deter would-be criminals: fear.
Baldwin County Circuit Judge Robert Wilters cited James Edward Foster. Wilters sentenced the 30-year-old man to life in prison in 2000 after finding him guilty of possession of cocaine. Foster had a long record. Yet the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles may release Foster. A hearing is scheduled for next Monday. “When life means three years, you’re going to have anarchy,” Wilters said.
The Legislature recently created a second parole board to speed releases. Officials have estimated that the move could send home 5,000 to 6,000 inmates. At the end of October, Alabama had 27,643 prisoners in a system designed for 12,378.
Alabama parole board members have typically heard about 180 cases a week; with the new panel that began work last week,Monday, that will double. Most inmates convicted of the most serious felonies and those given terms longer than 15 years could have expect to serve at least a third of their sentences before receiving a chance at parole. The new mandate to reduce the prison population has placed nonviolent offenders on a special docket to be reviewed far short of that time frame.
Dan Wilhelm of the New York-based think-tank Vera Institute of Justice, said Kentucky, Arkansas and Oklahoma have initiated mass paroles in the last 18 months to deal with overcrowding. He said the programs are too recent to evaluate the impact on crime, but he said the political backlash has been strong. “Most states are pretty eager to avoid doing what Alabama is contemplating doing now,” he said.