By Yenah Lee
MONTGOMERY, AL – The ACLU of Alabama’s Parole Watch Report detailed a recent account of Alabama parole hearings this past year, providing explanations and data that addresses the state’s historic low parole grant rate.
Over the last five years, Alabama was known for its consistently low parole grant rate after the state’s change in leadership of the Board of Pardons and Paroles. According to the Alabama Reflector, 31 percent of all parole applications were granted parole in 2019, 20 percent in 2020, and 15 percent in 2021.
The trend remained consistent with the recent data recorded by the ACLU of Alabama’s Parole Watch Report, where only seven percent of eligible incarcerated individuals were granted parole in 2023.
Created by the ACLU of Alabama, the Parole Watch Report is a team of community members who aim to provide an accessible perspective of the state’s public parole hearings through eyewitness observation and data collection that may not be attainable from public records.
Between a 10-week period in June, July, and August, the Parole Watch team observed 267 public parole hearings and recorded information ranging from individual Parole Board members who opposed parole grants and their reasons why, votes of individual board members, characteristics of incarcerated people denied parole, and whether those individuals were truly “dangerous.”
Out of the 267 public hearings observed, only 19 paroles were granted by Alabama’s Parole Board: 16 individuals in June and three in July.
Additionally, the Parole Board also elected to set a maximum time period for parole reconsideration for about 75 percent of applicants denied parole at their hearing.
The Parole Watch team calculated that with this maximum time period, one-quarter of the denied applicants observed would remain in prison for the remainder of their sentences without another opportunity to apply for parole.
The Parole Watch team’s other trends from observations included that 86.5 percent of parole applicants assigned to work release facilities were denied parole despite being vetted by the Alabama Department of Corrections as individuals who are able to safely work in the community. Out of 74 parole hearings involving parole applicants assigned to work facilities, only 10 were granted parole.
The team also found in at least three out of four (78.3 percent) parole hearings, the Attorney General’s Office and/or VOCAL opposed parole. Parole Board Chair Leigh Gwathney voted to deny parole in 100 percent of the cases the AG’s Office opposed.
The team also noted, compared to their Black counterparts, white applicants are more than twice as likely to be granted parole, even when Black and white parole applicants have similar cases.
Incarcerated parole applicants are also not allowed to be present at their own parole hearings in Alabama, thus individuals are not given the opportunity to advocate for themselves.
Alabama’s Parole Board operated with only two members throughout most of 2023. When Leigh Gwathney and Darryl Littleton reviewed cases together from January to late-March, the parole rate was at or below 5 percent.
From April to June, Kim Davidson was appointed as another member to the board to complete Dwayne Spurlock’s term. During this period, the average parole grant rate rose to 10 percent and peaked at 17 percent.
From July to August—which was in the middle of the Parole Watch Report’s observation period—only two members reviewed parole cases. The grant rate dropped back to sub-five percent.
“The Parole Board’s decisions aren’t motivated by concerns for public safety,” argued Alison Mollman, Interim Legal Director at the ACLU of Alabama. “Their decisions are retributive, racially disparate, and prevent people who could safely and responsibly reenter society from returning to their families.”