MONTGOMERY, AL (WSFA) - Robert Longshore, a retired Chief U.S. Probation Officer, was a fixture on the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles for more than a decade, serving nearly all of two gubernatorial appointments.
“To be perfectly candid with you, I was not in favor of some of the steps that were being taken, ”Longshore stated. “Since I couldn’t buy into the program I elected to leave before my term expired.”
The program, the Justice Reinvestment Act, was a sweeping piece of legislation passed in 2015 to reduce the state’s overcrowded prison system.
“The concept the state of Alabama could parole itself out of this overcrowding situation made me uncomfortable,” he explained. “My professional position is the exit strategy to get someone out prison is not to free up a bed. Is to go to the traditional parole model: at the appropriate time an inmate is released under the supervision of a highly trained well-motivated officer with a manageable caseload.”
The Council of State Governments audited Alabama’s criminal justice system, proposing a comprehensive overhaul to specifically reduce the number of non-violent offenders in prison.
“They came in with some things that I inherently disliked, one of which was their concept - and this is hard for me to believe - when we explained our processes to them, they said y’all are working too hard. There are tools that are available to make it easier to parole the hard cases. It should never easy to parole a hard case,” said Longshore.
Longshore left the Board in 2016. Since then, the number of paroles has spiked
In 2017, 54 percent of cases that went before the board were granted parole. The latest data from the Alabama Department of Corrections shows the board is on track to set another record.
In August, 3,679 inmates had already been released on parole this year, 26 percent of DOC’s jurisdictional population, which ranges from close security to community corrections. The largest number of inmates were paroled from medium security prisons, 56 were paroled from close security facilities.
After the governor intervened in October, the board paroled four defendants convicted of murder who served an average of 20 years. All but one was sentenced to life in prison. Six other inmates serving life sentences for unrelated offenses were also granted parole.
Longshore said the board has an identity crisis: protect public safety or decrease the prison population.
“Is it your role to parole violent offenders?” Longshore asked. “Even if it the will of the court and the community for this person to be incarcerated, are you going to parole them anyway? If your mission is to get people out and keep them out, you’ve lost track of what the public and the history of parole is all about.”
What prompted the board to consider violent inmates for early release remains unclear.
“Parole should never diminish the severity of the crime or the sentence imposed by the court,” he said. “To totally disregard and disrespect what happened in the circuit court - that’s totally out of my field of vision. We had a case with a serial rapist who had 12 consecutive life sentences. It does not take anybody with a criminal justice background to understand the court’s intention in that case.”
The governor was critical of the board’s recent corrective action plan and sent it back for more work. The board must respond in two weeks.
Despite the outcome, the board still remains one of the most powerful organizations in the state.
“They are totally unfettered in what they do,” Longshore said of the board. “Other than a mandatory sentence or life in prison they can parole everyone tomorrow. There’s no appealing of it. Their decisions are final. Parole board members have to be impeached, they can’t be fired - they are a remarkable board.”
The board has not responded to Ivey’s criticism of their plan.
Sen. Cam Ward who sponsored SB67, the Justice Reinvestment Act, will sponsor legislation to reign in some of the board’s power. Something he attempted to include in the bill in 2015.
“There was resistance to that, and the Justice Reinvestment Initiative had very little with who was paroled, or how they were paroled,” Ward explained. “I believed they had too much discretion, I said it in 2015, and I believe the same thing today."