Should Alabama Parole More From Crowded Prisons?

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Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, a 52-year-old homeless Alabama man with a long criminal record, was out on parole last July when he was arrested for killing a 7-year-old boy, his 75-year-old great-grandmother and another woman. The murders upended Alabama’s parole system, reports Spencer’s release from prison drew the ire of Gov. Kay Ivey and Attorney General Steve Marshall, and inspired Ivey last October to halt what calls early paroles. At the same time, federal investigators were preparing  findings, and their legal warnings, about Alabama’s brutal, jampacked prisons. While Alabama stopped early paroles, Mississippi has gone the other direction, increasing paroles, decriminalizing marijuana and earning high grades among Southern states for attempting reforms. Legislation is pending in Alabama to require that people convicted of certain violent crimes cannot be considered until they serve 85 percent of their sentence or do 15 years in prison.

Last week, the U.S. Department of Justice gave Alabama just 49 days to start easing the crowding and resulting violence in its prisons. The DOJ report recommends that Alabama consult a nationally recognized expert to assign low-risk, nonviolent prison inmates to local oversight. The governor’s office says it’s not an “either-or” proposition. “The DOJ report provides no reason to release violent criminals into our neighborhoods and onto our streets,” said Ivey spokeswoman Lori Jhons. “Governor Ivey has fought both to crack down on lax parole policies and to ensure that Alabama’s decades-old prison problem gets an Alabama solution, once and for all.” Mississippi is recognized for dropping its prison population 17.5  percent from a peak of 22,831 inmates in 2008 to 18,833 in 2016. Alabama saw a 13 percent drop from a peak of 31,437 inmates in 2012 to 27,799 in 2016.

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