New Pardon & Parole Director a Reformer: Q&A with Director Cam Ward

For the past 10 years, Cam Ward served in the Alabama Senate, emerging as an influential figure as chair of the Judiciary Committee, which provides oversight over many criminal justice concerns.

On Dec. 7, he stepped down from the state Senate and was sworn in as the new director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, an embattled body that has had five different directors over the past nine years.

Ward arrives at the bureau at a particularly fraught time in its history. The BPP has been under intense scrutiny in recent months for granting parole to a relatively small percentage of prisoners as COVID-19 has raged through prisons across the state.

As Latonya Tate, founder and executive director of the Alabama Justice Initiative, pointed out earlier this month, the parole board granted parole in just 20% of cases since July, a precipitous drop-off from the 2017-18 fiscal year, when the board granted parole in 54% of cases. But on Nov. 30, Charlie Graddick, a former circuit judge, stepped down after about 16 months as director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, creating the vacancy that Ward has since filled.

In state politics, Ward, a Republican who represented Shelby County, was a fixture in criminal justice reform debates, often serving as a dissenting voice on punitive approaches to law enforcement.

In a wide-ranging interview with AL.com Tuesday morning, Ward addressed that legacy, discussed his vision for his new role and shared his hopes for the future of criminal justice reform in Montgomery.

The following conversation has been edited for clarity and length:

AL.com: Congratulations on the new job. How will your senate seat be filled and when does that happen?

Ward: Thank you. The governor dictates that. What happens is they’ll have a special election – the primary’s March 30, and then the general election will be sometime in early summer or late spring.

AL.com: How did you decide to take the job with the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles?

Ward: I had talked a lot with [Gov. Kay Ivey and her staff] about corrections, pardons and parole, so it just kind of evolved into that. This was before Judge Graddick announced he was leaving. But we had had conversations about my vision, what we could do to fix this and make it better, and just kind of a vision for what we could do for the whole criminal justice system.

The governor’s chief of staff and other staff members, after the resignation occurred, called and I sat down and met with them and then the governor sat down and met with me and offered me the position, and I accepted right away.

I was in the legislature for 19 years, but the longer I served, the more all of my focus ended up being on criminal justice. And so, it was just a very natural fit for me, and I saw it as a great opportunity to keep focusing on criminal justice and it was the issue I cared about the most anyway.

AL.com: What’s important to you about the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and what kind of a difference do you hope to make there?

Ward: I think my vision is we need to get back to what our core foundation is, and that is public safety is first, but we can accomplish public safety through proper re-entry. Rehabilitation is the way to achieve public safety. When you look at the criminal justice system, it’s not just one agency … it’s the entire system, and I think we play a key part of that, but I think our biggest role is how do we help people re-enter society so they’re not a threat to public safety.

AL.com: Can you talk a bit about the role the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles plays in re-entry and rehabilitation?

Ward: We have rehab opportunities outside the facilities. A good example is what’s called [the] Life Tech [Center]. Life Tech was a re-entry program, which was run and operated by Pardons and Paroles. If you weren’t in [Department of Corrections] custody anymore, but you were going back into society, Life Tech provided rehabilitation for substance abuse, mental health, but it also provided job training skills.

That was eliminated in the administration before me. I am going to reopen that facility – it’s in Thomasville, Alabama – to refocus again on offering more and more rehabilitation-type programs for people re-entering society.

AL.com: Does the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles have direct influence over those types of re-entry programs?

Ward: The Legislature has to sign off on the budget, but I’ve been working closely with several members of the Legislature to enact that vision that reentry and rehabilitation in the long run reduces crime, reduces recidivism, and provides healthier members of society.

Life Tech is run and operated by [the BPP], but now you also have Ingram State Technical College, which provides prison education programs for those inside the correctional system. But also, in the past we had Life Tech, which provided job training programs for those who are on parole. Why don’t we expand upon that, increase those opportunities? We’re paying pennies on the dollar to make sure somebody doesn’t come back into prison. [BPP] can do that internally, in fact I’ve already started on that.

AL.com: What do you intend to do differently than has been the case at Pardons and Paroles in recent years and months? There has been a lot of criticism of the decreased rate of cases in which parole has been granted in recent years.

Ward: In fairness to the board, you can’t look at the rate of release in a spreadsheet format. People want to put a spreadsheet down and go, ‘Well, this year the number is this, this year the number is that, and now this year the number is this.’ You can’t look at it through that lens, because, one, the [prison] population has changed a lot. The violent population has increased dramatically, and that’s probably due to the reform legislation we did in 2013 and 2015. That decreased the nonviolent population, so the number of people who are eligible for parole has decreased. So to blame the board solely for that by looking at spreadsheet numbers is unfair to the board.

The numbers have gone up on our number of paroles granted in just the last few weeks, which is good. But you’ve got to provide the board with the docket numbers. If they’ve got a small docket, there’s not a lot of people to choose from.

We’ve had 34 paroles over the last few days, and that compared to the rest of the year is a lot. I’m going to tell you that’s a dramatic increase in paroles granted over just the last few days.

It’s easy to blame the board because they have to make the final vote but if they’re only getting a small volume to choose from, it’s not fair to them. And there is a population that’s not eligible, so don’t put them on the docket.

AL.com: So you’re saying, because a lot of people were already paroled or released early because of this legislation, then the pool of people who can be released on parole is a lot smaller?

Ward: Right, the pool you’re choosing from is much smaller. There is a population, and I’ve talked to the legislature about this. This is a big issue. There is a segment [in the prisons] that was convicted under the Habitual Offender Act.

If you were convicted before 2015 of certain crimes three times, you automatically got life without parole. But if you were convicted after 2015, with several of those crimes it’s not life without parole. I tried to get legislation passed to address that … That needs to be addressed but that’s up to the legislature, not us.

AL.com: The COVID-19 pandemic has intensified criticism of low rates of paroles being granted. Do you see opportunities for more medical parole, or ankle monitoring, or ways to release older people or people who are sick or at risk of contracting coronavirus?

Ward: I’m going to make a request to increase funding for ankle monitoring – actually it really isn’t ankle monitoring now it’s remote tracking – you have ankle monitors and now you have wrists too almost with like a Fitbit watch or an Apple Watch. On the medical, it requires the legislature to change the law to increase medical parole eligibility.

I think there’s a segment of the population out there that’s geriatric that medically should be eligible. But again, the Legislature’s going to make the law and we’re going to follow the law and enforce it however they tell us to.

AL.com: Do you worry about the Senate losing your institutional knowledge and your role regarding criminal justice in this state? There aren’t many other senators who are so focused on these issues. And, for instance, it seems like your influence was one of the only reasons why we don’t have private prisons in this state, that type of thing – do you worry about losing that in the Legislature?

Ward: There will be someone who steps into my shoes, and there will be someone who steps into the next shoes. There will always be someone who comes along, and I know this from my colleagues who I served with, Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate – there are a lot of people who have passion about this, they want to do it, and I have no doubt they’re going to step up to the plate.

Unfortunately for the state, [the U.S. Department of Justice] and the federal courts have put us in a spot where we have to do something, but I have no doubt – there are leaders who are stepping up right now, who’ve called me, we’ve talked, and they want to do something about fixing this. And they’re great, they’re going to do a good job.

You’ve got Rep. [Jim] Hill [R-Moody], chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, taking a keen interest. We have members of the senate judiciary committee who have the interest and I think you have the leadership there to get this done, to fix this problem so we can get out from this haze we’re under with the Department of Corrections and the correctional system as a whole. Pardon and Paroles is every bit as much a part of the situation as DOC. … While DOC is named as the lawsuit defendant, we’re all part of fixing the problem.

AL.com: Do you worry that someone with a different mindset from you could come in and take a different approach to issues like criminal justice reform than you did?

Ward: No, I’ve been in politics long enough to know that it’s cyclical. Yeah, there’ll be some folks that don’t like the way I looked at things the way I looked at things and there are others who do, but someone always steps up to the plate when we need them.

Unfortunately, the headlines always focus on those who did bad or did something wrong or said something stupid. But at the end of the day there are a lot of people who keep their head down and get the real work done. And I’ve had total confidence in some of the people I’ve talked to, and still talk to, about what needs to be done. I really feel like we’ve got some members who are going to step up to the plate.

AL.com: What else do you see as your legacy regarding criminal justice issues from your time in the Legislature?

Ward: I guess, as a senator, my legacy was I took on the issue of criminal justice reform, and it wasn’t politically popular, but it was definitely the right thing to do. And I have no doubt in my mind that despite the criticism, my convictions tell me I was right to do that.

I hope to continue doing that in this new role. I think there’s a way to fix our criminal justice and make it not only that we increase public safety, but we also give people a second chance in life and society. And my faith and my convictions drive me to that thought.

AL.com: What are your thoughts on Ivey’s prison construction plan, and do you intend to have a role in that process going forward?

Ward: I actually handled the bill for two years in a row to get the Legislature to do the construction. Construction by itself does not fix the system. It does, however, play a part in it, in that if you want to increase mental health rehabilitation, if you want to increase substance abuse rehabilitation, if you want to introduce better programming and education, you’ve got to have new facilities. I can’t see Pardons and Paroles having a role in deciding where they’re built or any of that. But construction of new prisons does play a role in fixing the problems because you’ve got to have more programming space. But where they’re built at and all that, that’s the governor’s decision.

AL.com: Any final thoughts or takeaways?

Ward: I think the biggest takeaway for me is this: In the last nine years we’ve had five directors in this agency. I want to bring stability, and I want to focus, again, on re-entry. My job is not to determine who goes to prison and who doesn’t go to prison. But when they’re coming out, we want to ensure that public safety is the first priority, and I think the way to guarantee public safety is to make sure someone gets the help they need if they have an addiction or mental illness, and that they’re getting the job training and skills so they can go out and get a job so they can pay their taxes, they can pay their bills, they can pay their restitution, and they’re not a threat to society anymore. I think my vision is one that can work for us, but it’s not going to come fast. It’s going to take time to do it.

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published this page in News 2021-01-05 13:40:53 -0600