Parole Problems: A WAFF 48 News Special Report

HUNTSVILLE, AL (WAFF) - The three members of the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles sees about 100 cases each day the board meets, leaving about 10 minutes per hearing.

"Sometimes it's overwhelming," board member Robert Longshore admitted. "I got the numbers run when I was coming up for reappointment. In the six years of my first term, I conducted 49,000 parole hearings."

Fellow board member William Wynne agreed.

"Our officers are terribly overworked. They're undermanned, under gunned, under supplied, under equipped, but they just approach their job professionally every day."

As in the case of one convicted drug dealer and his mother, board members can be treated to melodrama worthy of Jerry Springer.

"Screaming, falling out on the floor, yelling at each other from the other side," Longshore described.  "Sometimes is it moves from in here, where we insist that decorum take place, and it moves to the sidewalk out in front of the building."

It can become difficult not to take it home, according to board members.

More confounding for observers are those cases utterly beyond the control of the Parole Board. Only 25 percent of Alabama prison inmates released get out on parole, but the board gets plenty of flack for convicts it never even sees, those released after serving minute fractions of their sentences because of "good time."

Under Alabama law, qualifying convicts who stay out of trouble in prison can take 75 days off their sentences for every 30 days they serve behind bars. The formula is meant to promote good behavior, but it also promotes wild disparities between sentences and actual time served.

"A lot of times," Wynne conceded, "you can take a 10 year sentence and it will wind up being four and a half year sentence if the guy keeps his nose very clean."

The bad news about good time is a frustrating fact of life for Janette Grantham, victims' advocate with Victims of Crime and Leniency. She's been pushing for victims and their families since the 1979 murder of her brother, Coffee County Sheriff Neil Grantham. Grantham has seen the jarring discovery when victim families get the unexpected notification of upcoming parole hearings for convicts they thought had been put away.

"It's horrible because they have to relive it again," she said. "You can attack someone, and cause them serious bodily harm, and get a 15 year sentence for Assault 1.  You will not earn good time.  If you go ahead and kill them, and you get manslaughter, you're going to earn good time and you will not spend 5 years in prison."

New state legislation gives The Alabama Sentencing commission greater latitude for setting sentencing policy and seeks to clarify the confusing array of sentencing standards with a goal of comprehensive truth-in-sentencing guidelines by 2020. But observers say real "truth" in sentencing will be complicated.

"It's going to cost a lot of money," said Longshore, "to build more prisons."

According to Longshore, 80 percent of the inmates that come before the parole board have already had their terms drastically shortened by good time, good time which judges, juries, lawyers and defendants have all come to expect and which factors into their decisions throughout trials, plea bargains and sentencing.

He cautions that more "truthful" sentencing may mean some convicts serve longer terms but could also require judges cut back on headline-grabbing "tough on crime" lengthy sentences, when there's a realistic chance of a defendant actually serving all, or even most, of those sentences.

Meanwhile, the board continues sifting through an unending procession of cases, looking for those inmates truly likely to make something of a chance on the outside.

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