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Bureau of Pardons & Paroles Expanding Services for those Recently Released

Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, on Thursday stood inside the bureau’s Montgomery Day Reporting Center and made a case for why such centers, which help those paroled and pardoned readjust to life outside prison, should be all across the state. 

During a press conference on what was described as a growing partnership between the bureau, the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Community College System, Ward pointed to one specific success story, a man named Samuel Huntington, a graduate of the Montgomery center.

Huntington said he received a life sentence in 2010 for trafficking drugs, and was granted parole in March 2020 and was ordered to attend the Montgomery Day Reporting Center. While discussing his time there, Huntington stopped for a moment, and appeared to become emotional. 

“I’m just moved by a lot of stuff that has happened in my life through this program,” Huntington said. 

The center helped him with housing and to get his driver’s license, he said. He got a job outside of the center, but has since been hired in a program run by the Alabama Department of Mental Health as a mentor to help others coming into the Montgomery Day Reporting Center. 

“It has been a long, hard journey for me, but I kept my head up and kept pushing, each and every day,” Huntington said. “I didn’t give up…I lost a lot, but I gained way more than I lost.” 

The Day Reporting Center program began in 2015, with a first facility in Birmingham, and has since added centers in Montgomery, Tuscaloosa, Mobile and Huntsville. Day reporting center “lites” are located in Bay Minette, Fort Payne, Guntersville, Jasper and Opelika. 

Rebecca Bensema, the bureau’s division director for special populations, said Thursday that those on pardons and paroles who come to the centers are those most in need of extra services, who struggle with a place to live, drug addiction, employment, mental health and low educational attainment. 

Enrollees at the center attend classes five days a week, from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m., and are drug screened at least twice a week, Bensema said. They receive substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavioral therapy, educational training and job readiness training. Bensema said the centers use evidence-based programs, and explained that graduating is no easy task. 

The bureau’s 2020 annual report shows that in 2019 there were almost 900 people enrolled in the day reporting centers, but that dropped to approximately 300 the following year. A bureau official said Thursday that the COVID-19 pandemic caused the drop in numbers. 

“When you see a story of someone who’s made a success out of life, that’s what our goal is,” Ward said. 

Ward said the criminal justice system must be looked at through a holistic approach, yet the idea of the bureau and the Alabama Department of Corrections and the Alabama Community College System working together “seemed foreign for so long.” 

“And it’s silly, and programs like this show why working together succeeds,” Ward said. 

Ward took over as director in December, replacing former Alabama Attorney General Charlie Graddick, who in December 2019, decided to end the bureau’s Life Tech Training Center in Thomasville, where for more than a decade recently paroled received job training provided by the Alabama Community College System. 

Graddick’s decision drew criticism at the time from state lawmakers, Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker and Ward, who described the program was critical at keeping people from reentering prisons. Ward now plans to reopen the Life Tech Training Center in Thomasville, although that’s not yet happened. 

Ward said Thursday that 95 percent of people in Alabama prisons will be released, and asked “What do we want that person to look like?” 

“It’s real simple. With the amount of compassion and the rewarding of human dignity, what you can do is you can make every person a success story,” Ward said. 

Alabama Community College System Chancellor Jimmy Baker, speaking during Thursday briefing, applauded Ward’s appointment as bureau director, and said the state must be able to provide the support “that can change lives.” 

Baker explained that the community college system has an important role to play in helping those involved with the criminal justice system. 

Ward said his goal is to have day reporting centers “in every corner of this state.”

“So that regardless of your geography, regardless of your demographic, regardless of your income every single person who is on parole or who is involved in the criminal justice system at whichever stage, that person has an access to the success story we heard earlier,” Ward said. 

“You replicate this around the state and that is how you reduce recidivism,” Ward said. 

Asked by APR what it would take to make his vision of day reporting centers spread across the state, Ward said it will take a commitment among the different agencies “and you’ve got to have the resources of the Legislature.” 

“I’ve been selling that vision to the Legislature daily, and a lot of them weren’t aware that this is even available,” Ward said. 

Ward said the state’s overall recidivism rate is approximately 30 percent. 

“You go through one of these programs, that drops in half, for a very small financial investment,” Ward said. “You can’t do it all at once, but maybe over the next six to 10 years what if we had this everywhere, and we saw the state recidivism go from 30 percent to 14 percent?” 

Ward explained that doing so would prevent future crime, create jobs and provide “human compassion.” 

“We want our people to succeed. All of us would want that, and if we can do something to make that possible, through mental health treatment, substance abuse and education, I just think that’s the future of criminal justice,” Ward said.

 

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Pardons and Paroles Director Looking for More Transparency in Hearings

By Eddie Burkhalter, APR

Cam Ward, director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardon and Paroles, said he’s working to increase transparency of pardon and parole hearings, but it may be weeks yet before that work bears fruit, and there are complications. 

Pardons and parole hearings were canceled on March 13, 2020, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Gov. Kay Ivey on April 13, 2020, issued a proclamationresuming hearings, but also temporarily did away with the state law that allows in-person attendance. Instead, victims, officials and those seeking an incarcerated person’s release may write letters to the board for consideration. That proclamation is still in effect. 

Ward told APR on Friday that the day before he discussed with the three-member Pardons and Paroles Board — which by state law operates independently of the bureau — the possibility of allowing virtual attendance to hearings using the virtual meeting platform Zoom. 

“That way that’s still more personal than just a letter,” Ward said. 

But the change couldn’t begin before June, Ward said, because notifications to all involved in an incarcerated person’s case — victims, families and attorneys — have already been sent as for hearings that are to occur through June. 

There’s also a concern about a lack of internet access for many families in rural parts of the state, and other technical issues that may complicate virtual attendance.

Ward said a day’s hearings can run from 8 a.m. until 5 p.m. with numerous cases held a day. 

“If you’re number six on the docket you may come up at 10 o’clock, and you may come up at 1 o’clock,” Ward said, noting that speaking with the bureau’s IT staff he believes people will have to be on standby and notified by bureau staff when it’s time to log on. 

“I think it’s going to cut down on the number of cases we hear dramatically,” he said.

Ward said the bureau is about to begin meeting four days per week, and is averaging about 30 cases each day. He believes if they move to virtual hearing attendance it could cut the number of cases seen daily in half. 

Ward said he would also like to see incarcerated people attend their own hearings to help make their case for release, which is something he said has never been done in Alabama. 

“I would love to see more transparency, even after COVID. Maybe the opportunity for an inmate to say, ‘I’m here. Here’s my case. ‘Whether the board votes for them or not, at least give them the opportunity to say why they should be paroled,” Ward said. 

Asked about when those hearings would be reopened for people to attend in person, Ward said under the state’s current order in-person hearings aren’t yet required, but that “I would like to start seeing us get there.” 

Ward said he’d recently spoken to Ivey’s office about just that, and planned to ask State Health Officer Dr. Scott Harris to visit the hearing room and advise whether in-person hearings could be held safely. 

“To make sure we’re following public health guidelines,” Ward said. 

Ward said he believes the decision on whether to reopen meetings is his to make, not the board’s, but that “this has never happened before.” 

“I want more openness. I want to get back as soon as we can to public meetings, but at the same time recognize the public health guidelines. I just want to make sure we’re safe,” Ward said. 

Ward, a former state senator who was chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was appointed as director in December, replacing former Alabama Attorney General Charlie Graddick. Ivey had appointed Graddick in September 2019, and Graddick suspended all hearings in September and October. When hearings resumed in November, the number of persons receiving a hearing declined sharply. 

The U.S. Department of Justice in December 2020, filed a federal lawsuit against the state of Alabama and the Alabama Department of Corrections alleging violations of inmates’ constitutional rights to protection from prisoner-on-prisoner violence, sexual abuse and excessive force by prison guards. 

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A Path Forward on Criminal Justice

By Jeff Dunn, Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections and Cam Ward, Director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles

 

As Commissioner of the Alabama Department of Corrections (ADOC) and Director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP), our top priority is to ensure public safety in Alabama.

No matter your opinion of our criminal justice system, the reality is if you commit a crime and are convicted by a court in Alabama, you owe society a debt of time.

 

Time as a consequence. Time as restitution. Time as a safety measure.

  

Only a small fraction of convicted criminals will remain in prison for life. The rest – 95% of people currently serving a prison sentence – will pay their debt and one day be released as free citizens. Inmates who are released from prison and return to their communities need jobs. They need to pay taxes and abide by the law. Our agencies help prepare them to do that by offering rehabilitation and reentry services, and supporting returning citizens through supervised parole, probation, and access to needed resources.   

 

While the ADOC and ABPP share a unified mission to rehabilitate inmates and enable a smooth transition back into society, historically there has been a lack of collaboration between our agencies, limited clarity around the parole consideration process, and perceived inconsistent standards of review.  

 

The result? Some inmates may wrongly have lost hope that they will ever be able to earn their freedom back through our parole process. Imagine the negative effect that has not only on that individual, but also on fellow inmates. Why put in the work to improve if that effort seems to amount to nothing?

 

Hopelessness is a driver of violence and despair in any prison. Hope, on the other hand, is fundamental to positive change during incarceration and eventual success upon release. The potential for release provides that hope and therefore stability, meaning, and a strong motivation for the future.  

 

Under Governor Ivey’s leadership, we are committed to driving a transformation that fosters hope by increasing collaboration between our agencies. In the past, our work has been conducted in siloes, and it is time for a change. We need to establish a clear pathway to reentering free society by expanding our rehabilitative programs; creating a transparent, consistent process for parole consideration and ensuring that inmates understand how it works; and enhancing our reentry services so that released inmates can transition back into society safely and successfully with support and supervision.  

Reducing recidivism, which is when a convicted criminal reoffends, should be important to every Alabamian. This is a bipartisan issue, and neither of us, nor Governor Ivey, believe that doing “hard time” is enough to transform someone from a public safety risk into a law-abiding citizen. We must look at the bigger picture.

 

In our minds, a recipe to reduce recidivism and create safer communities has multiple ingredients. First, we should diligently explore ways to expand pre-trial and diversionary programs as an alternative to immediate incarceration – including substance abuse and mental health treatment programs. For those sent to prison, we must build environments that better accommodate necessary treatment, education, vocational training, and life-skill development resources.

This recipe also calls for creating a clear process for parole consideration to include developing a tool that consistently accounts, and gives appropriate credit, not only for an inmate’s good behavior while incarcerated, but also for all the work an inmate has done to rehabilitate.

 

Additionally, we need to enhance our reentry and transition programs and eliminate barriers to getting a job by helping returning citizens get an ID card or driver’s license, social security card, or birth certificate. Equally important to strict supervision upon release is strengthening our ability to provide structured support of parolees’ job search, continued rehabilitation, or treatment of their underlying conditions through our day reporting center programs.

 

This is a tall order, but we are working hard – and together – and we will get it done! Our focus is on increasing collaboration between our agencies through regular meetings, expanding our use of evidence-based programs, digitizing paper processes, and integrating IT systems using 21st century technology so that we can better share information across the State’s law enforcement agencies.

We also hope to establish leadership positions at both the ADOC and ABPP that are focused on rehabilitation and advancing our unified mission. Our agencies will adhere to a coordinated, strategic plan and these leaders will regularly report on our progress.

 

Governor Ivey has a comprehensive vision for modernizing Alabama’s outdated criminal justice system and refocusing it on rehabilitation. Replacing our aging, dilapidated prisons with new facilities is only one critical component. Her vision also requires legislative reforms, technology improvements, expanding existing programs, and increasing agency collaboration to maximize the use of taxpayer dollars.

These smart investments into our future will help those who are incarcerated return to society as productive, law-abiding citizens. That makes every Alabamian, and our communities, safer.   

 

 

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In the Weeds with Cam Ward

Here’s In the Weeds with Cam Ward.

ADN:  Thank you Director Ward. It’s kind of odd for me to say director instead of senator, are you getting used to that?

Ward: Its been a change but I’ve enjoyed it. I think there is still some confusion about what we call you out here, but I’ve been called a lot of bad things in my life too so I’ll take a good call anytime. 

ADN: Thank you for having me in today, I appreciate talking with you during this change and with what the bureau is going through right now, its good to get an understanding of the situation. First I want ask, why did you want to take on this role? Why did you want to switch from being in the Legislature to being in this agency?

CW: I’ve served just about 19 and a half years in the Legislature and really enjoyed it, it was an honor of a lifetime, but I also have always said that that shouldn’t be a permanent part of my life, and I honestly was getting to a point where I loved it and enjoyed it, but I loved it and enjoyed it in doing what I did and was afraid that all of a sudden I would wake up one day and be there forever. It’s not a forever job. And not to mention the fact that my passion has always been in criminal justice reform. I’ve just enjoyed that issue and when this opportunity came up, Gov. Ivey offered me this position, I just couldn’t pass it up, because now I get to focus all my time, all my efforts, full time to criminal justice and it was just a great opportunity for me, and something I enjoy doing in life.

ADN: You are one of the people in Alabama that has the most knowledge of the prison situation and you’ve certainly been the face or the drive behind certain legislative pieces that have made changes. What is your vision for the bureau right now? For how you want to tackle, maybe not the prison issue, but how you want to tackle paroling, what is your vision of what the bureau should be doing?

CW:  Well, we’re a piece of the puzzle, the bureau is a piece of the puzzle. We’re not the solution to the prison problem but we’re definitely a part of the solution. I think between the courts, between diversion programs, between DOC, us, I think all of us play a role in how we handle the prison problem that we have in Alabama. My vision and the way I look at this is: the bureau has always had a problem, I call it a pendulum issue. We went from too many people who shouldn’t have been let out were let out of prison, then we went to absolutely no one is getting out. There has to be a happy middle. As a told the governor when I met with her, I call it the Goldilocks approach. Not too hot, not too cold, but somewhere right in the middle. A more pragmatic approach. Don’t retry every case. Look at someone and the No. 1 question is, are they a threat to society, are they a threat to public safety? That’s how you look at parole. And of course there were some tension between the board and the previous director, I don’t work for the board, the board doesn’t work for me, but we’re suppose to work together. So I guess my vision is this: One, I want to see us revaluate how we are looking at cases, that doesn’t mean you’re letting more out or less out, it just means we revaluate the standards that we’re using. Two, I think the bureau of pardons and parole should be a partner with the department of corrections, should be a partner with the board. Should be a partner with the courts and law enforcement. We should be a partner with all of them and not be out here acting as a silo on issues by ourselves. So my vision is I want to make it run more smoothly. Two, integrate ourselves so that we’re a partner in making sure, one, public safety but two, adequate and proper re-entry and rehabilitation programs.

ADN: Can you talk a little bit about the rehabilitation programs. There’s been some back and forth about what should happen to programs like Life Tech, can you talk about what your plans are for those situation?

CW:  I went down and visited LifeTech a few weeks ago, and my goal is to not only reopen LifeTech but to expand upon Life Tech. Life Tech, for those who don’t know, is a reentry program, rehabilitation and it provides not only educational opportunities, but provides health, provides drug and substance abuse rehabilitation. We need to do more of that in Alabama. And the way you do it is, it shouldn’t be a pardons and parole, its shouldn’t be a DOC, it shouldn’t be this, we should all be work together. So one of the things we did is we convened down there with local authorities, such as the mayor, such as some local official there and then we had Ingram State technical college which is a prison education program, we had DOC, my agency down there, and what could all of us do together to, not only Life Tech, but how do we expand upon that. What if we eventually took over the Perry county facility, which has been a big political debate in the Legislature, what if we took that over also as a re-entry type program. I think the more those programs provide, data, everywhere in the country shows this, it’s unanimous, it reduces recidivism, the likelihood of someone committing a crime again once they go through that program, it drops dramatically. So yes that’s a big focus of mine. We’re both a law enforcement agency but we’re also a how do we help someone get back on their feet agency, but yes I think LifeTech and we also have what we call out Day Reporting centers. Where someone checks in to make sure they’re taking their medication and making sure that if they need treatment that they’re getting the treatment they need for addiction. We need to expand on those programs and use them more than we have in the past.

ADN: Can you talk about the day reporting centers. I know a lot of things have had to change because of COVID-19 can you talk about how the systems have been changing there, how are officers taking tactics differently to go out to see people?

CW:  It’s been a challenge because you’re limited in the contact with others. The officers still do what they’re supposed to do despite the fact that they’re at risk to being exposed, but they’re doing what they’re suppose to be doing with that, and it’s changed but just like everything else, we’ve adapted with technology. We use a lot more Zoom, we use a lot more interactive features that we can talk with people and monitor things and I think you’ll see that increase as we move forward. COVID changed really everything in how we do things in government. I can see going forward using a lot more electronic monitoring. Now there is a stigma that says, well that means ankle bracelets, well not necessarily, ankle bracelets are part of the issue, but now technology can come in the form of your Fitbits or your Apple Watches, it’s the same size but now technology that I can check in if you’re a client or someone on parole or probation, you can check in with your officer without have to leave your home, without having to leave your job, and they’ll know where you’re at, what you’re doing and making sure you’re doing what you’re suppose to be doing. I can see that being the future of monitoring because its so accurate as to, well you’re here and you shouldn’t be here, or you’re at work.

ADN: Do you have any idea of when parole and probation officers might be getting the vaccine?

CW: That process is going on now. They’re starting that now because they’re considered frontline. So, that is starting now.

ADN: I know a priority for the last director and for you is hiring more parole and probation officers. Can you talk about that effort, what are the challenges?

CW: So, there are two issues I’ve noticed. One, we do want to hire more parole officers, but two, giving them the support they need to do their job. The idea behind the 2015 legislation we did, SB 67, which was about reforming criminal justice reform, the bulk of that legislation dealt with the Bureau of Pardons and Parole. The idea is the more parole and probation officers out there monitoring people, checking in on them, making sure they’re doing what they’re suppose to be doing, the safer we are and the less likelihood they’re going to commit crimes again. In order to do that they’ve got to get out behind the desk. Right now we have enormous amounts of paperwork that they’re constantly having to do. Which confines them to a desk as opposed to being out there and interacting with people that they’re supervising. So, one of the ideas is to have a professional services type of officer. That person does nothing but processing the paper work. It’s not a law enforcement person but they do process paperwork. More of those folks dealing with the bureaucratic needs and then allowing the actually officers to be out there and watching and monitoring, that’s the path forward. And the previous administration before me started down that path and I think they were right in doing that.

ADN: I believe at one-point, former Director Graddick said at one point he wants 138 new officers by the next year, I forget the time frame exactly, but is that your goal as well?

CW: So my first swearing in was four officers, and the last one was 31. So yes I think that goal is correct. I think Graddick was correct on that and I think we should continue to push forward on that. There is a dispute as to what the standards should be. Some say 75 clients to one officer. My issue is, as long as the officer isn’t being clawed up in paperwork, that number can fluctuate some. They just need to be freed up to do their job.

ADN: You’ve also spoken to me before about needing extra support staff for the three board members.

CW: They do and they’re an easy scape goat on why paroles have stopped and its not fair to them. At the end of the day if you really want them to be able to work, they need to have support staff, now that was a disagreement I had with the previous administration. So the bureau, if you look at our organizational chart is separate from the board, but they usually have their own staff to provide them with the things they need. The bureau should be providing whatever resources they need from us and we give it to them and that hasn’t always happened and that’s slowed down a lot on the pardons and parole considerations. Ever since I came here, I think we’ve been very open and very honest on getting…I meet a lot with the board, so asking what do you need from us, so not only are we giving our resources but in my budget requests is to have them some more staff to help them deal with these issues. The board is only as effective as the people that are there to support them staff wise, and they have some good people but they need more.

ADN: Speaking of the board and the slow down of the parole hearings, is it your intention or would you like to see more parole hearings happening at an accelerated pace?

CW: We’ve increased that dramatically already. A good example just last week. For the entire month of March 2020, when COVID started, we were down to roughly about 200-230 hearings for the month of March. We didn’t have any in April. In May, we had about 130-140. Just last week we had 142. And then when it comes to pardons, pardons has almost come to and end and so when you’re looking at that the grant rate is still around 20-25%. Just because you have it, doesn’t necessarily mean its going to be granted, but yes I would like to at least see the hearings increase. There’s one flaw. Everyone looks at these spread sheets and says, well the grant rate in 2015 was here and now its here. The problem being that since the legislature enacted certain reforms, a larger part of your non-violent population in prisons is gone. The prison population, violent wise, as far as statutory criminal sentences has gone up, so there’s less population that’s eligible for parole. A lot of people were blaming the board, that they’re not releasing enough, but you can’t look at a spread sheet, you need to look at individual cases to see if they’re eligible.

ADN: I know a criticism about that, about more violent offenders being in prisons in Alabama is that the violent categorization in Alabama is very wide reaching, you’ve got drug charges and robbery charges in there, so you agree about the categorization issue?

CW: How you categorize them is a big issue. The problem you have is, a lot of what you need is legislation changes, and that’s no longer my purview but I will tell you there are several people who have had cases of robbery II, drug possession and assault I, why aren’t you letting him out? Because before the 2015 act, he is considered a habitual offender, and under law you can’t. So they’ve got to change the law on how you categorize people.

ADN: There was conversation, I believe a year ago, I believe it was given by the bureau, they were talking about maybe revaluating the Ohio Risk Assessment System, that the board uses, is that something the board is considering still?

CW: In 2015, when I had my legislation for criminal justice reform, I wanted to make ORAS standards mandatory. You had to use them. Then we couldn’t get it passed and it got removed from the bill in 2015. I think we should use it. Its been used all around the country. They basically go in and look at if you (inmate) has gotten an education, do you have a job skill, what have you done right or wrong since you’ve been on the inside and that’s the evaluation for parole. There are certain people, statutorily, the most violent offenders, murders, rapists, child molesters, human traffickers, they aren’t eligible for a certain period of time under the law but there is a population in between that you can use ORAS to see if they should or should not.

ADN: And you think the way the board uses that and all the other risk factors is appropriate?

CW: I think we can improve upon it and its not a criticism on the board, it’s a criticism of the law. I think making us use that, mandatory, would help us a lot. But again the board and myself included as the bureau director, whatever the Legislature says is what we’re going to do. It’s the law. And there’s a lot of criticism of the board that they should or should not follow this, whatever the law says is what they’re going to do.

ADN: Going back to the parole hearings, do you have a goal yourself that you would like to see a certain amount of parole hearings you would like to see every week?

CW: I don’t want to do quantity because I think quantity is misleading. And I think two administrations back did that. They said we’ve got to have X number of hearings every single time and that’s a subjective view and I think its false because the entire population may change. I don’t think you can use a quantity. I think you look at the individual cases. Don’t retry the cases. We already had a judge try them, convict them, they’re in prison. Now you look from the time they enter, till now and evaluate case by case, but I would not go back and say we need to have X number considered regardless of what they did. I just think that’s a bad approach. It’s not honest. It’s basically telling people here is my spread sheet but I think running criminal-justice type agencies by spread sheet is a bad policy.

ADN: Talking about the Legislature, what are your proposals for the budget requests that you hope to bring to them?

CW: Of course my budget has been submitted to the Governor’s Office and the Finance Department and then they’ll submit it to the Legislature. I am going to focus on three big issues. One, I want to do more re-entry. More re-entry programs, more rehabilitation, more education in partnership with education agencies like Ingram State Technical College or DOC.  Two, I think we have got to get away from the paper that we use. We’re running an outdated system and its slowing things down. The number of paper files between DOC and the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles is so antiquated. Why aren’t we doing everything online and digitally. So that’s the second thing. And third, we have to support our staff in the field. These officers who are working and we need more officers to help monitor those out on parole and probation. And then finally, a fourth thing, we need more legal staff so that, we’ve picked up the tempo in the number of hearings, but it’s because we are putting more legal staff to help the board develop the files and have the hearing, and they just haven’t had that. So sorry its four things not three.

ADN: Do you have a specific number in mind for the budget?

CW: No, What I’m not going to do is go to the Legislature and make some enormous request, above and beyond, because I think our agency has to re-establish trust with the Legislature. Show this is what we’re doing, we’ve had problems over the last 15 years. I’m the fifth director we’ve had in the last nine years. We’ve got to do something to re-establish the trust and show this agency is confident in how to spend their money.

ADN: Last week at the Legislative Contract Review Committee meeting, the bureau had several contracts about mental health services. Some of the legislators were saying that a lot of the services you want to provide could be provided through the ADOC or the Alabama Department of Mental Health?

CW: The problem you have there is that if you talk to mental health they’ll tell you, mental health does not hire or have on staff mental health doctors, that’s not what they do. They coordinate the services through private by contracts but they don’t do that. And if you talk to mental health, they say we don’t do criminal justice mental health, we don’t do prisons, that’s just not what they do, they don’t have the staff, its just not feasible for them. I think going forward and I’ve actually talked to some legislators since then. At the end of the day, that should be a core part of our mission. If you want to keep someone from committing a crime, if they have a mental illness lets treat it. But you do a lot cheaper if you contract than if you had somebody on staff, because I think one of the contracts is like $500,000, you could probably because of benefits, salary and everything else that goes with it, you could have three people per amount of staff as opposed to contracting for most of the state for the same amount. It just doesn’t work. The Department of Mental Health and DOC, DOC does not have employees that are “mental health”, they don’t provide mental health services, they are not a hospital. All they do is they contract out, and that’s that same thing here.

I think there’s just a lot of confusion… Pardons and Paroles and DOC is not something a legislator goes into and says, “I want to be an expert on this.” It’s not fun, the general public doesn’t care about it, but I think there’s a little confusion because of that but that’s just part of the process.  

ADN: Talk about what you are hoping your relationship will be with ADOC. There have been problems in the past where their really wasn’t good communication happening.

CW: We talk a couple times a week.  We’ve had a couple meetings, where myself and (Commissioner Jeff Dunn), and we also meet with technical colleges, so that they are providing educational programs to inmates, and I think the commissioner would agree with me, it’s the first time we’ve all gotten together in the same room in years.  So he and I talk, Comissioner Dunn, Dr. Funderburk out of Ingram state. We talk weekly. We talk a lot. I think that relationship needs to grow. I think the problem is that state government has blinders on and my agency does this, your agency does this, but I think they all blend over. I think if we all come with a common goal, forget the bureaucratic lines that have been put in place, if you’ve got to do it and I take back up or I’ve got to do it and you take back up, if we work together towards the goal, don’t let arbitrary bureaucratic lines stop you from doing that. Dunn and I talk a lot.

ADN: And has he be perceptive to your ideas for the bureau?

CW: We have a very good relationship. He has a different mission than I have but we also blend in that his is public safety, mine is public safety. He’s going to have people leaving him coming to me into my custody, so how do we do that better. I think we have a fantastic relationship, and that was one of the things I told the governor I saw as a weakness in this agency and the entire criminal justice system is that we have all these agencies that are responsible for bits and pieces but to fix the problems we see with DOJ and the federal courts, all of us need to be on the same page, working together hand in hand, don’t get in turf wars, don’t get jealous of each other, just work together and I think that’s an area where my work in the Legislature will help me. I think that helps all of us and I told the governor I think we can work together in a way and improve the whole system and not just one agency, not me fighting versus the DOC. That happened too much and can’t have that going forward.

ADN: Another problem that Director Graddick was bringing up when he was in this position was the crime victims notifications and how that whole process works wasn’t working to its fullest ability, have you made any changes to that process?

CW: We have a designated crime victims director. All she does all the time. It’s a technology issue. IT wise. We’re starting to make progress, it’s a priority but at the end of the day you’ve got to have money to do it. But the law clearly states though that the crime victim or the crime victim family has to be notified, so that delays a parole hearing. The law is clear that we have to provide that notification. But yes what happens is that someone who is listed as a crime victim or a crime victim family who is suppose to be notified, ten years ago they lived at this address, a person hasn’t had a hearing in 10-15 years and they’ve moved three times since then, how do you find them?  And a lot of times sometimes they are registered, sometimes crime victim families say they want that out of their lives, it was so traumatic, I don’t want that to be part of my life anymore, so they just move on, so that’s part of the challenge too.

ADN: Do you think that the process overall has improved though since the Graddick administration?

CW: I’ve only been here a month so I think we’re still in the same situation. I think we’re trying to but I don’t want to fool anyone and say its better. Its technology and a lot of crime victim registries say this is my address but again a lot just say they want that part out of my life so that creates challenges. You’re always going to have the human element but I think we’re trying to get there.

ADN: As a wrapping up point, what are some signs or markers that you are going to be able to see or look for in maybe a years’ time or further down the road that shows you’ve made positive change here?

CW: First of all the moral of the officers. There was a feeling the officers have said, and this isn’t an inditement on any one administration, this is an inditement on the system as a whole, they felt like we had no guidance or leadership, things were just floating out here. That’s one, how do they feel. There will never be an arbitrary number, that if I hit this number or this number that we’ve done what we’ve suppose to do. I think our success is going to be governed on how we have restarted the programs on reentry, rehabilitation but also the moral of the officers who are having to work in that program every day. There’s not an arbitrary number, its just an are we seeing an increase in programming being offered and say in three or four years what does the recidivism rate look like in Alabama. Now I think that’s a big part of our job. How do we reduce recidivism. We have done a good job in Alabama compared to other state, as far as the re-conviction of people. We’re in the high 20 percentile range. But we can always do better but I think this agency is responsible. So I would say my marker is, morale, increase in programing and what does that do in three to four years for our recidivism rates.

ADN: You said too before the you never really envisioned yourself to be a senator your entire life, do you see yourself being in this bureau the rest of your life?

CW: No, I don’t think anyone does one job forever. I will say though we need, if there is one marquee thing I could say, we need stability in this agency. Five directors in nine years, it creates a morale problem for the officers, it creates a morale problem for the agency officials and everyone left. The pendulum keeps swinging back and forth way too much. I think we need calm and I think we need stability. And I think we need a better relationship with the legislative branch of the government and I think we need to do a better job of being fellow partners with our other law enforcement agencies. So, no, I don’t envision myself being here forever but I do hope I can bring some stability and calmness to what we’re doing.

ADN: That sounds great and I think a lot of people would be hopeful for that change too.

CW: I think my experience in the Legislature helped me with my legislative relationships. I think it helped me in understanding how the budget process works. Being over there gave me a lot of experience that helps me being here. Now I will tell you that being here, its almost like drinking from a fire hydrant. I’m learning a lot. Despite all the legislation, enacting policy is one thing but implementing it is something totally different.

ADN: Well what is the most surprising thing you’ve learned since being in this role?

CW: I think the most surprising thing I’ve learned is just how big the agency really is. Being in the Legislature and working on these bills and I kept thinking well you’ve got these officers and this is what they do and the board members and that’s it. There are over 750 employees.

ADN: Oh wow, and is that including the parole officers?

CW: Yes, it’s in 62 counties. And we’re actually understaffed for the population we’re monitoring. We’re monitoring 50-60,000 people. So, that was the most surprising thing and I should have known that as a legislator but I think in dealing with it as a legislator you deal with it in spoon sizes. No one digs that deep into it. And when I got here I had no idea it was this big. So that was a surprise. I’m learning something new every day but there is a lot of institutional knowledge here. And I will also say I have my, I call them my 25-year-old caucus group, and I remember when I went into the Legislature when I was 30 and had a lot of people mentoring me, and now I have like 12, 25-year-olds who do various things but they are committed, dedicated and have criminal justice backgrounds. So that’s been fun but the learning curve has been steep. I’ve learned more from this process. But it’s been good. But yea the size of the agency and the number of services. I had no idea the number of services, I said “we do that?” So you learn.

ADN: I know, it’s always daunting going into a new role and being the director of something like this, I can’t imagine.

CW: It’s interesting. My style is very different from Judge Graddick. I do a lot of one-on-ones, I want to be very transparent, as I can be with the law but I want people to feel like they know what we do and what’s going on. I think a big part of this agency’s problem is education. Like what do y’all do? Y’all either keep people in or let them out. I’ll tell you something I’m learning. Pardons for example, we haven’t done pardons in a while. I signed seven the other day and its stuff like that that the average population just doesn’t know.

ADN: Well this has been very knowledgeable for me, that’s for sure.

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Alabama Parole Board Plans Extra Meetings to Ease Backlog of Pardons

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Alabama's parole agency plans to hold additional meetings to reduce a backlog of more than 8,000 requests for early release from the state's overcrowded prisons, officials said.

The pace of inmate releases slowed last year during the pandemic and a clampdown on paroles, and the new director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, Cam Ward, said the board wants to make sure everyone who is eligible for a hearing gets one “in the most efficient way possible.”

“We are willing to work as hard as possible to accomplish this goal,” said Ward, a former state legislator who took over from Charlie Graddick in December.

The Board of Pardons and Paroles, which normally considers requests for pardons and paroles three days a week, will hold extra hearings and use special dockets to review pardon requests, it said in a statement.

The board has a backlog of about 8,500 requests for pardons, said Gabrelle Simmons, head of operations.

Alabama prisons held about 21,000 inmates in November, the last time the Department of Corrections released statistics, but they were designed to hold about 12,400 people.

Graddick, a former state attorney general and circuit judge, resigned amid criticism that prisoner releases slowed during his tenure, and that Black people in particular were unfairly kept behind bars.

The board refused release to 90% of the inmates up for consideration in May during its first hearing following a monthslong suspension amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Justice Department filed suit in December against Alabama over conditions in prisons, alleging the state failed to protect male inmates from inmate-on-inmate violence and excessive force at the hands of prison staff.

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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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Ward Named Director of Alabama Bureau of Pardons & Parole

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Longtime state legislator Cam Ward, who spearheaded prison reform and criminal justice legislation during his time at the Alabama Senate, was sworn in Monday as director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey administered the oath of office to Ward after appointing him to replace Charlie Graddick, who resigned amid criticism over the slowing pace of paroles.

Ward, a Republican from Alabaster, stepped down from his Senate seat to take the state agency position.

Ivey on Monday also set special election dates to fill Ward’s Senate seat. District 14 represents portions of Bibb, Chilton, Hale, Jefferson and Shelby counties. The special primary election will be March 30. A runoff, if needed, will be held April 27, and the special general election will be July 13.

“I appreciate Senator Ward agreeing to serve in his new capacity as director of the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles, but it is just as critical to fill the open seat on behalf of the people in Senate District 14,” Ivey said in a statement.

Ward served as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has worked on issues related to corrections and courts.

Alabama prisons held about 21,000 inmates in August, the last time the Department of Corrections released statistics. The prisons were designed to hold about 12,400 people, the report showed.

Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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Ward Presents Grant to Alabaster City Schools

ALABASTER – State Sen. Cam Ward awarded Alabaster City Schools with a $40,000 grant on Wednesday, Dec. 2.

Ward met with Thomson High School Principal Dr. Wesley Hester, Chief Technology Officer Anthony Kingston, Board of Education President Adam Moseley and ACS Superintendent Dr. Wayne Vickers at THS for the grant presentation.

The grant is meant to help the schools cover their remaining costs for security and safety upgrades, Ward said.

Vickers said the improvements would begin at THS to provide additional surveillance equipment in their parking areas.

“Senator Cam Ward has been nice enough to award us a $40,000 grant to enhance the safety features at our schools,” Vickers said. “We have received a $350,000 grant through the federal government to enhance safety features at all of our campuses as well. Senator Ward allows us to finish this project, and we really appreciate him doing that.”

Vickers said the improved security measures are much needed and appreciated by ACS, and this is not the first time Ward has been a contributor and friend to the school system.

“It’s a substantial commitment because we can do some things in our parking areas that we need surveillance on and so this is a big deal for high schools,” Vickers said. “We’re very thankful to Senator Ward. We are certainly going to miss him as he is leaving this position and taking another. He has been a great friend to public education in Alabama and a great friend to the Alabaster City Schools, and we are very thankful.”

Ward said he has watched the ACS system grow since the beginning and has enjoyed partnering with them over the years, stating that it is one of the best school systems in the state.

“I remember when Alabaster City School system first incorporated into a school system, and I can tell you looking at the changes today what I’ve seen in the last few years, it’s one of the fastest growing school systems in the state, and the reason for that is the quality of education that they provide,” Ward said. “The fact that they are already upgrading and looking at better features and better ways to provide safety on campus tells you the quality of the school system it is. I’ve loved partnering with them over the years. They’re great and I sincerely believe it’s one of the best school systems in the state.”

Kingston said THS’s resources were already fairly up-to-date before the grant, but now they will be able to expand the security coverage to the school’s parking lots and other parts of campus.

“This addition will help us finalize our completion of our security grant that we are doing for the other four locations,” Kingston said. “With the school being built in 2018, we had a lot of the resources here for security cameras and door access. With the additions that Senator Cam Ward will give us, we’ll be able to add more cameras to the parking lot areas for more security, and it will enhance things for us here on campus.”

Hester said he is grateful for the opportunity to enhance safety and security for staff, students and guests with the grant.

“It’s a tremendous blessing for our school just to be able to enhance the safety and security around our campus around our school,” Hester said. “Anything like this will greatly help us to make sure our students and our staff and all of our guests are very safe. They already are, but this is going to make them even safer, so it’s just a tremendous blessing of what this is going to be able to do for us and helping us to enhance our safety and security here at the high school.”

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Ward Right for the Job

“Politically, Ward and I agree on probably a handful of things and disagree on a truckload more. But his beliefs are grounded in principles.”

State Sen. Cam Ward has been tapped to head Alabama's Bureau of Pardons and Paroles.

A strange thing happened Tuesday: Gov. Kay Ivey appointed a new director of the Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles and no one complained. 

Republicans, Democrats, liberals, conservatives, independents. No one had a bad word to say about Cam Ward. 

The state senator from Alabaster is generally considered one of the most level-headed, respected members of Alabama’s Legislature, which is sort of famous for being anything but level-headed and respected. Unfortunately — or, I suspect, fortunately, in his opinion — he’ll be forced to give up that Senate seat to take on this new role. 

There’s little chance that someone as thoughtful and well-meaning as Ward will get his seat. 

And that’s a problem that I’ve never understood. A problem that is growing by the hour, it seems in today’s hyper-partisan, confrontational, social media-driven, image-only landscape of 2020 politics. 

Truth, decency, common sense and working for the greater good have taken a backseat to raw ambition and personal favorability polls. 

Why be a decent servant of the people and work to make meaningful changes that positively affect thousands of your fellow citizens when you can instead send out press releases and letters saying off-the-wall insane things that drive up your name ID? 

We’re to the point now that good politicians are actively hiding the good deeds they’re doing or their true thoughts about important, helpful legislation because they fear they’ll be demonized by more partisan primary challengers and punished by a voting bloc that increasingly sees elections as a means of confirming their commitment to their favorite R or D team. 

Ward is a perfect example of this. 

Several years ago, not long into his mission to overhaul Alabama’s criminal justice system through complicated legislation that was lost on the average voter and that essentially tricked other lawmakers into voting for good bills, I sat on a couch in the capitol building with Ward and talked about the reform he was pursuing. He asked me, point blank, to tone down anything I would write about it. I assume that was because he was fearful that a story explaining his criminal justice work, combined with my byline, would be attacked by the more conservative lobbyist groups and special interests. 

Public Service Announcement

He was right. And I toned it way down. 

In fact, over the years, much of what Ward has accomplished in reforms has remained unreported. Partly because it’s complicated and boring and involves endless details of legislative committee hearings and backroom negotiations, but also because so many people were fearful of just what it would mean if certain people and groups learned that Alabama had over the last several years participated in one of the largest mass releases of incarcerated individuals in the entire world. 

That’s not hyperbole. 

Thousands upon thousands of young men have been legally processed out of Alabama prisons through the criminal justice reforms pursued by Ward and others. 

It was accomplished by eliminating petty mandatory sentence mandates and streamlining probation protocols and dozens of other necessary and worthy changes. Changing things that were supposed to keep Alabamians safe but were actually just useless, punitive add-ons that sounded good on campaign websites while unfairly punishing people for petty crimes.

Despite all of those releases, Alabama’s violent crime rate is at its lowest point in decades, and pretty much all crime is at all-time lows. And the state’s recidivism rate is below the national average. 

One day in the future — hopefully, when Alabama’s prison issues have been addressed — the full story of what Ward and others accomplished can be told. 

But in 2020, that is impossible. 

Hell, it’s almost impossible that a guy like Ward exists, especially in the Alabama Republican Party. 

And that’s not a partisan shot. It’s reality. 

When you have a one-party state, as Alabama so firmly is, you squeeze out the middle. The only way to get elected in that party is to keep pushing further and further to the extremes and vilifying anyone who dares to compromise or play nice with “the enemy” on the other side of the aisle. 

Even while representing one of the reddest districts in this state, Ward has resisted such a push. And on more than one occasion, he’s pushed himself and his party back towards the middle on important issues. He’s even gone to war with his party and powerful conservative special interest groups over causes that were important to him and his constituents.

All of that is exceedingly rare these days.

Politically, Ward and I agree on probably a handful of things and disagree on a truckload more. But his beliefs are grounded in principles that he can identify and verbalize, and they come from a place of honesty.

You can reason and compromise with a person like that.  

But most importantly, for the job he’s about to take, Ward actually seems to care about his fellow man. You simply can’t take on the tasks and criticisms that he has over the last several years — all with so little political upside for him in this state — without there being high levels of compassion and empathy in him somewhere. 

And it’s nice to see such a guy finally get this job.

Josh Moon is an investigative reporter and featured columnist at the Alabama Political Reporter with years of political reporting experience in Alabama. You can email him at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter.

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Reed Elected President Pro-Tempore of Alabama Senate

Sen. Greg Reed, R-Jasper, was unanimously picked Monday by Alabama Senate Republicans to be the next president pro tempore of the chamber, putting Reed in the top leadership role in the Senate and the third highest position in state government. 

The action by senators was in the form of a nomination that is expected to be successful during a vote in the full Senate, with Republicans controlling 27 of the 35 seats in the Senate. 

A rules change in 1999 watered down the power of the lieutenant governor, making the post of president pro tem in reality the highest leadership role in the Senate. 

The nomination came ater Pro Tem Del Marsh, R-Anniston, said Monday he would step down from that role at the start of the 2021 Regular Session, which starts Feb. 2. Marsh had already announced he was not seeking re-election in 2020. He has served as pro tem since 2010.

Reed, 55, has been senate majority leader since 2015. He was re-elected to his Senate seat in 2014 and 2018 without opposition. 

Sen. Clay Scofield, R-Guntersville, was also picked by Republicans to follow Reed as majority leader. 

Sen. Cam Ward, R-Alabaster, told AL.com, he doesn't see major changes for the Senate as part of the changeover. “Senator Reed works hand-in-hand with Senator Marsh. I see a stable transition,” Ward said.

Reed told the Eagle Tuesday afternoon that in the wake of Marsh's intentions to not run again that it was "a natural progression and an opportunity to maybe take additional responsibilities within the Senate body. I began to think about it and look at it as an opportunity for me, and made it known to my colleagues over time that if and when Senator Marsh decided to step aside, that I would be interested in the opportunity." He said he hoped that his years as majority leader demonstrated he could do the job. 

He said a number of his colleagues also came to him about the possibility of become pro tem.

At Monday's meeting, Marsh made the announcement he had several things he wanted to focus on, and he would step aside as pro tem, Reed said, adding that Marsh had "hinted" beforehand he would make the announcement then, and that it was completely his decision. 

"At that point, a little bit to my surprise, I was quickly nominated, and there was a vote taken by my colleagues, and I was elected unanimously by our caucus to be the pro temp once Senator Marsh stepped aside," he said. However, he emphasized that the formal resignation from the role and Reed's election by the full Senate will not come until the start of the session. 

Reed said he has a "great relationship" with Sen. Bobby Singleton, the minority leader, and has already spoken to him. "He's also offered his support," he said, adding he will be speaking soon to other members of the minority caucus to ask for their support.

He said he has known Scofield for many years, as they were both first elected together. "He is a businessman and farmer from up in Marshall County," he said, adding they will be able to work well together. 

As for the pro tem position, Reed said while he has led the majority caucus of Republicans in the chamber, the pro tem role, elected by the full Senate, will have responsibilities to the full Senate. It will involve operation of the Senate and the Senate staff, he said. The pro tem will also be responsible for a number of appointments and is third in line to succession as governor in the Alabama Constitution, after the governor and lieutenant governor. 

While he will have more responsibility, he will stay the same in focusing to be a "servant leader" to the chamber and to help other senators to be recognized and heard for their thoughts and ideas as part of deliberations. He said he would also be the governor's "primary contact" with the Senate. 

He said he would continue to represent his Senate district and continue those normal responsibilities, bringing "a highlight and a focus on my own district." 

Reed said business needs would be a focus in the coming session, saying he is hearing from colleagues across both chambers and from constituents that Alabamians "are focused keenly right now" on the economy and job growth, and how to keep businesses open. They also want to "take every option to mitigate the coronavirus," he said. Some resulting packages he will focus on are renewing and creating incentive packages to recruit business for the state. 

He also wants to concentrate on conservative budget methods, adding the state is in much better shape economically to deal with the pandemic because of the state's conservative approach, compared to other states. As a result, he said Alabama has not had to deal with the deep cuts other states have. 

On COVID-19, he said upcoming vaccines sound promising, but the state has "a ways to go before we get to the timing where those products are readily available for our citizenry." He said the state needed to work with federal officials and the Alabama Department of Public Health in the meantime. 

"I just want people to know what an honor and privilege it is for me at the deepest personal level to be able to serve my district first, and the people of my home district," Reed said, "and to be selected as the leader of the state Senate is a great honor. I take it very seriously. I want to do the absolutely best job I possibly can. I will never claim to have all the answers, but I will everything I can to be a leader that the people the people of my district can be proud of." 

Reed has served in the Senate since 2010, where he represents the 5th District, including Walker, Winston, Fayette, Tuscaloosa and Jefferson counties. 

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