Those eligible for parole should have presence at hearings
As a judge for 30 years, I sentenced those convicted and reviewed cases on appeal — putting or keeping thousands of offenders in jail or prison. I generally agreed with the sentence imposed, but there were others that I thought were too light or too harsh. Why? Even doing everything by the book, the criminal justice system is made up of human beings: judges, prosecutors, witnesses and jurors. Everyone has their own personal experiences and their own biases, imperfect people with imperfect recollections. Most of the time, we get it right. Sometimes, however, we do not. It is those times that we hope and pray that the greatest aspiration of our criminal justice system prevails: “Equal justice under law.”
According to the Bureau of Justice Assistance, US Department of Justice, 97 percent of all criminal cases are resolved by guilty pleas resulting from plea agreements. By pleading guilty, the accused removes a terrible burden on the court system and the victims. The biggest incentive for that plea is the possibility of parole. When defendants plead guilty with the hope of parole, they do so believing that parole is achievable. The formula for their release on supervised parole is the following: follow prison rules, stay away from the drugs which are prevalent inside every institution, successfully complete educational and training courses, and show that they are truly sorry and have learned from their mistakes.
Redemption Earned, a nonprofit pro bono law firm which places a top priority on public safety, was created to assist the oldest and the sickest in the Alabama Department of Corrections. The overwhelming majority of Alabamians do not know that Alabama prisons are overcrowded, understaffed, dangerous and filled with many aging people who are way past hurting anyone. Yet, our state has the lowest parole rate in the US at 10 percent, and we refuse to allow those given the privilege of earning their parole the opportunity to even be present at their own parole hearing. This is unacceptable and un-American!
On April 19, House Bill 228, sponsored by Rep. Chris England, received a favorable report in the AL House Of Representatives Judiciary Committee with bipartisan support. We agreed to a substitute (https://www.legislature.state.al.us/pdf/SearchableInstruments/2023RS/HB228-int.pdf) containing only one monumental change: the mandate for “Virtual Attendance at Parole Hearings’’ for every parole-eligible person. This requires the Alabama Board of Pardons & Paroles to change their proceedings to allow virtual presence of those whose freedom is at stake and simply bringing a modicum of fairness to the process. As Retired Talladega Circuit Judge Julian King succinctly stated, “When you sit in judgment on someone, you should look them in the eye.”
Alabama is one of the few remaining states that does not provide this opportunity to individuals who are eligible for parole. We applaud the efforts of England for spearheading this direly needed change.
This bill, if passed in its revised version, will be a game changer for every person in Alabama prisons who have sentences with the possibility of parole, and, particularly for Redemption Earned clients, most of whom are bedridden and wheelchair bound. Seeing their faces and hearing their voices by Zoom will give the Parole Board essential information that they presently do not receive. Recognizing and paroling the rehabilitated saves tax dollars and helps businesses who desperately need workers. This is the right thing to do for all the right reasons.
Contact your state representative and senator, asking them to support HB 228. Please help Redemption Earned, as we assist, “the least, the last, and the lost.”
Sue Bell Cobb, AL Supreme Court Chief Justice (Ret.), executive director, Redemption Earned, Inc., www.redemptionearned.org.
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