The Indigenous Justice System: Over-incarceration of Indigenous People and the Need for Cultural Humility

by Eva Pechtl

To better understand the value of culturally centered practices in Indigenous justice, I encourage you to read my previous blog, “History of Limitations and Restorative Justice.” In this blog, I will be highlighting the resulting statistics on the overrepresentation of Indigenous people in prisons. Then, utilizing reports from several justice-oriented organizations, I will summarize how professionals from Indigenous communities conclude problems and solutions that need to be addressed to neutralize these disparities in the Indigenous criminal justice system. 

 

Serious complaints arose around a decade ago about the food quality of the catering hired by the provincial Saskatchewan government.
An image of a man in adult provincial custody in Saskatchewan, Canada, looking out of his cell with his arms between the cell bars. The data on the overrepresentation index for Indigenous people in 2020/2021 was highest in Saskatchewan at 17.7 times higher than the non-Indigenous incarcerated population (Statistics Canada, 2023). Image Source: Don Healy/Regina Leader-Post via Yahoo Images

 

Visualizing the Statistics 

Indigenous people are overrepresented in the criminal justice system across several countries, including the United States, Canada, and Australia. Extensive research has been conducted by human rights organizations around the world, but collecting accurate data on Native populations in the United States has proven difficult. The visibility of crime has come a long way since the Not Invisible Act of 2019 was signed into law in 2020 to increase information sharing and track cases of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous People (MMIP) crisis. However, data on Indigenous populations is still flawed in some ways. According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI) and a report by the Safety and Justice Challenge (SJC), categorizing people by a single race can wrongfully categorize people who identify with more than one race. The data that does exist is inconsistently labeled, meaning it could refer to Native people as Indian, American Indian-Alaska Native, Latino, or other. The number of incarcerated Indigenous people depends on how they are counted, and this generally underreports and, therefore, overlooks Native people in the system.  

According to the PPI, the data shows that Indigenous people are incarcerated in federal and state prisons at over four times the rate of white people. In the state prison systems of Alaska, South Dakota, Montana, North Dakota, Wyoming, and Utah, Indigenous people are highly overrepresented relative to the states’ Indigenous populations. The SJC report shows that in Montana, the Indigenous population is 7% but closer to 30% of the prison population. In South Dakota, Indigenous people convicted for aggravated assault received sentences 62% longer on average than any other racial group. 

 

Jurisdiction’s Impact 

Over-incarceration of Native Americans published by the SJC highlights complicated jurisdiction as a player toward overrepresentation. According to Indigenous experiences documented in the report, it is common for single crimes to be charged in more than one jurisdiction because of multiple police agencies patrolling reservation lands. Defendants may then face multiple charges with different requirements, which often results in punishment for failing to understand and/or follow those requirements. This is especially true for youth caught up in technical violations of probation or status offenses. 

A document titled Juvenile Justice, created by the National Congress of American Indians, speaks to the challenges of Indigenous youth in the justice system. Native youth are more likely to be subjected to the federal system and to be tried as adults, especially for drug-related crimes, leaving them with longer and harsher sentences.  

In Baytown, Texas, Olivia B. was arrested for a fight, expelled from her high school, and charged as an adult in court.
An image of a young girl being addressed by a judge in court beside her mother. The court proceedings for her misdemeanors, being charged as an adult, made it difficult for her to find employment and delayed her career goals of becoming a Psychologist (Open Society Foundations). Image Source: Michael Stravado/Redux via Yahoo Images

The federal system is not built for children, and sentencing often limits opportunities for diversion, parole, or services helpful in juvenile cases. Even if certain courts offer other options, youth are too often left with no support. Due to overlapping jurisdiction, professionals tend to assume that Indigenous youth will always be someone else’s responsibility. However, Tribal governments are often not informed when their youth interact with the state juvenile justice systems, and this prevents tribes from supporting reintegration and rehabilitation before, during, and after contact with the system. 

On the other hand, when Native children experience a culturally rooted court system like those of tribal courts and jails, they can have a better chance of receiving constructive intervention and support. For example, the Cherokee Talking Circle integrates Keetoowah-Cherokee cultural values that target substance use among youth. According to the Juvenile Justice document, researchers found that non-cultural education programs were significantly less effective in reducing juvenile delinquency compared to CTC. The Choctaw culture includes the practice of Immannumpuli, where an uncle or tribal court employee will educate youth offenders about the Choctaw justice system and talk to them about their life choices. Increasing collaboration between federal and tribal justice agencies to encourage US Attorneys to deter offenders to tribal court would be extremely beneficial for Native youth. 

 

Causes and Solutions 

The criminal justice system ultimately reflects an overreliance on locking people up, specifically Indigenous people, rather than offering services to rehabilitate offenders. Data from the Bureau of Justice Statistics displayed that in Indigenous areas specifically, the creation of more jails resulted in a direct increase in incarceration rates instead of being a remedy for overcrowding. As expected, the jail expansion also led to longer stays for both pretrial detention and actual sentencing.  

Especially in Indigenous communities, incarceration has harmful effects on health, as jails are not prepared to navigate chronic illnesses and are commonly dangerous environments. Incarceration is harmful to maintaining or finding employment, and this causes more poverty and debt among Indigenous individuals. Currently, because of high incarceration rates and a lack of restorative methods, many Indigenous people will be returning to their communities with significant challenges. Assisted reintegration is vital to the healing process needed after incarceration. 

The SJC report recognizes the long history of forced confinement of Indigenous people as a contributor to systemic inequities faced today. In the past and still today, disparities in justice are falsely attributed to the characteristics of Indigenous people rather than the more real factors of complex jurisdiction, deficiency of representation in court, racism, or violence. This is why legal professionals must consider the historical context of Indigenous trauma when analyzing current inequities.  

According to the SJC report, Tribal leaders have called for culturally relative alternative sentencing options that look to the roots of the crime problem. 15-16% of people in tribal jails were held for public intoxication or drug-related offenses, leading the Indian Law and Order Commission to state that drug abuse was a contributor to almost all crimes in Indian communities. Considering the serious financial and health effects of drugs, any efforts to prevent crime and recidivism would absolutely need to address substance use problems. 

Cultural Humility 

A reporter hears the story of an Indigenous man for the Intercontinental Cry report.
An image of a reporter listening to an Indigenous man, centering their focus on under-reported stories concerning Indigenous human rights. Image Source: Intercontinental Cry via Yahoo Images

 

Finally, the SJC report recognizes cultural humility as a necessary factor in supporting Indigenous communities. Practicing cultural humility means acknowledging your own inability to be an expert in a different culture. The disparities in representation in the criminal justice system can improve if non-Indigenous criminal justice professionals seek to understand that there is a lot they are not aware of concerning Indigenous experiences.  

Tribal agencies and activists across the United States have called for changes to be made, whether it is about legal jurisdiction, inadequate funding, or over-incarceration rates. Acknowledging the barriers that Indigenous communities and individuals face is a first step in creating cultural safety. Indigenous people are the best suited to handle justice and related problems facing their communities. It is time to listen to them. 

What Can We Do? 

To learn more about practices supporting native people, I encourage you to explore the lessons and solutions listed in the Over Incarceration of Native People. The document includes diverse proposals ranging from supporting Tribal Reentry programs, trauma-informed care, providing cultural mentoring, license restoration, victim assistance, housing, mental health services, and, most importantly, culturally relevant research and services. Juvenile Justice includes many evidence-based policy recommendations to change the status quo for Indigenous youth, helping them and their families to be better informed, tracked, assessed, represented, and treated. To find relevant services or contribute to their success, Tribal Justice also lists many resources and specified programs. 

Signs reading "Justice for Colten," "Indigenous Lives Matter," and "Murder is murder, lock him up!" advocate for justice for Colton Boushie, shot by farmer Gerald Stanley.
An image of a protest for Indigenous Justice In Canada in response to the shooting death of Colton Boushie and the acquittal of Gerald Stanley. Image Source: The Canadian Press/Jason Franson via Yahoo Images

In this series, I have reiterated many of the issues at the tip of the iceberg, but to continue supporting Native people, we must be able to acknowledge our ignorance of the rest of the iceberg that is the Native experience. With cultural humility in mind, we can work to unveil injustice in the Indigenous Justice System. 

 

The Indigenous Justice System: How Underfunding is Failing Tribal Police

by Eva Pechtl

For a better understanding of the information you will encounter in this blog, it may be valuable to read part one of my series on the Indigenous Justice System, History of Limitations and Restorative Justice,” on the legal jurisdiction of Indigenous authorities and the traditional forms of justice in many Indigenous communities. In this blog, I will expand on the struggles of Indigenous communities due to insufficient federal funding. Multiple Indigenous tribes are suing the federal government for violating treaty obligations to provide adequate funding for law enforcement and justice services on reservations.  

An image of an old U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police badge. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr              
An image of an old U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs police badge. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr          

 

Tribes like the Oglala Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne are suing the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), which operates 23 police agencies out of 258 official tribal law enforcement entities. The BIA’s Office of Justice Services is responsible for ensuring public safety and justice across Indigenous communities with a proposed 2024 budget of 641.8 million for Public Safety and Justice operations. Under section (900.33) of Public Law 93-638, proposals by agencies outside of the BIA must be reviewed by declination criteria under Subpart (E) and can be declined. Under section (900.31), tribes are entitled to appeal such decline of a proposal and can sue if they wish to challenge the decision.  

The findings of U.S. Code Title 25 Section 3601 state that “tribal justice systems are inadequately funded, and the lack of adequate funding impairs their operation.” There are 234 tribally operated law enforcement agencies; however, the BIA allocates more funding to the minority of agencies that are operated internally. Indigenous communities deserve well-prepared protection from law enforcement, but they are currently faced with battles they cannot win because of this disparity in resources. 

 

Agencies Bound to Crumble 

In a Senate roundtable discussion on Public Safety in Native Communities, several Indigenous speakers spoke about problems surrounding law enforcement in their communities. Tribal police Chief Michael Ford from the Reno-Sparks Indian colony expressed the challenges of keeping tribal officers when external wages are more competitive. Chief Ford explained that after years of training, tribal officers consider better positions for themselves and their families, making it difficult to build trusting relationships with community members and to have experienced officers capable of addressing serious issues. Similarly, Alex Cleghorn, Senior Legal and Policy Director at the Alaska Native Justice Center, explains how the competitiveness of grant processes and the non-guarantee of funding makes it difficult to have continuity in services. This causes challenges for Tribal law enforcement programs and deprives them of a chance to grow consistently or make positive impacts. These are examples of issues generated due to the lack of funding for police services and its effects on failing to adequately support tribal police. 

An image of a student and Tribal instructor training in a firearms proficiency session. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr
An image of a student and Tribal instructor training in a firearms proficiency session. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

Executive Director of the National Indigenous Women’s Resource Center, Lucy Simpson, comments on the effects of the lack of trust in police in Indigenous communities. Strong negative perceptions of law enforcement are present in Indigenous communities following consistent delays in services or instances of abuse by officers. Police abusing their power mixed with low expectations of law enforcement cause both a lack of reporting and of prospective police officers. This weakens the legitimacy of tribal police departments and perpetuates cycles of crime in Indigenous communities. When crimes aren’t reported or followed up on, it’s difficult for tribal police to maintain statistical information that is needed to handle crime reliably. Insufficient resources over time do not only prevent tribal police from effectively responding, but they preserve cycles of criminal behavior and negative police relations. 

 

Jeopardizing Indigenous Community Safety 

In a podcast made this summer by Native America Calling, the President of the Fort Belknap community, Jeffrey Stiffarm, says, “The community knows when there is only one person on staff.” Stiffarm said that drug pushers would make prank calls about domestic violence incidents, knowingly distracting the officer toward a remote end of the reservation while they make a shipment. This is not only dangerous for the community but also for the officers, who often have no choice but to arrive at dangerous calls alone. 

An image of a police car for the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr
An image of a police car for the Nooksack Indian Tribe in Washington. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

 

What Stiffarm found particularly frustrating was how the BIA funds departments that are not run by tribes at double or triple the amount. In Fort Belknap, the Chief of Police, criminal investigator, and four dispatchers are paid half the amount of BIA salaries for the same duties, and the tribal officers are paid 70%. Gary Lamere, a supervisory criminal investigator also from Fort Belknap, further exhibited this disparity when he recalled working for the BIA-run law enforcement on the Mescalero Apache Tribe in New Mexico, which had significantly more funds. He argues that with over $2 million for personnel alone, his patrol officers could be proactive, unlike in Fort Belknap, where the entire department has received $1.2 million for all services and is constantly fighting to catch up with crime.  

In the Native America Calling podcast, criminal investigator John Grinsell from the Northern Cheyenne Reservation says that the BIA closed the local jail and moved it 50 miles away with the promise of offering rehabilitation programs. However, the programs never showed, and the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes are only allowed 50 beds each out of the 400 beds in the facility. When there is an overflow in the facilities, offenders are transported to Oklahoma, where, if they are released, they often must wait for the monthly transportation services to transfer them back to their community. There is generally high frustration among Indigenous communities about the extended periods it takes for law enforcement officers to respond, often reaching an hour and a half. Furthermore, tribal police often must follow up on crimes without proper compensation when the BIA’s operations fail to follow up. Recently, in the Northern Cheyenne community, arson of a local thrift store was never followed up on, according to Grinsell.  

 

Constantly Running Behind 

When asked in the podcast what he knows about any tribes that are adequately funded, Stiffarm notes tribes like the Crow, which use money from their natural resources to fund their own programs. However, most reservations have been stripped of natural resources like coal and oil, leaving them with minimized opportunities to raise funds for themselves. For centuries, Indigenous people have been stolen from, wrongfully, and not reimbursed fully enough to escape the poverty that ensues. 

Geno LeValdo, a tribal council member in Fort Belknap, comments in the podcast that “no one cares about our communities as we do” and spoke to the BIA’s blatant rejection of pleas for funding. Frankly, the perception among Indigenous communities is that no one cares. A caller on the podcast from Fort Berthold in North Dakota argues that Indigenous people need representatives in Congress who are ready to listen to tribal members. Furthermore, they need Indigenous advocates who will advocate, not just fill a diversity spot. 

President Biden has made tremendous changes, which he highlighted in his Proclamation on National Native American Heritage Month, including appointing many Indigenous people in his administration. His changes are positive, but they are not as impactful as Biden implied, according to Indigenous leaders still dealing with serious issues facing their communities. Biden’s budget for 2023 allocated $2.8 billion to the BIA, with $562.1 million designated for Public Safety and Justice operations. Indigenous leaders wonder about the specific destination of the funds, as they are well aware they are not being allocated towards their services. 

Legislation deemed more highly supported by Indigenous people is the Parity for Tribal Law Enforcement Act, a bill introduced by Dan Newhouse in July 2023. It aims to address the barriers limiting tribal law enforcement by offering measurable steps to improve the hiring and retention of tribal officers. Again, Indigenous leaders are the ones who truly know what they need. Federal funding is a complicated process, but there is no reason to doubt and reject Indigenous calls for help.  

The Indigenous Justice System: History of Limitations And Restorative Justice

by Eva Pechtl

This is the beginning of a series I will be writing about Indigenous justice systems. Though Indigenous people span across the world, I will be providing information specifically on policies and relations of the United States in this blog. Indigenous justice methods are compellingly distinct processes. In this opening post, I will first summarize the history of limitations placed on Indigenous justice and then explore traditions and values behind the restorative processes of Indigenous communities. 

 

Tribal police officers have alternative uniforms and badges sometimes with details representing the Indigenous culture of their community.
An image of a tribal police officer’s uniform and badge from the Salt River Pima Maricopa community in Arizona. Source: Yahoo Images via Flickr

 

History of Foreign Limitations on Justice Processes 

First, it is important to acknowledge the history of legislation put in place by the federal government that has greatly affected Indigenous justice systems. Constant structural changes imposed by colonizers resulted in wide variations between Indigenous tribal justice systems, meaning some are more similar to the US legal system than others. However, overarching this entire topic is the question of whether Indigenous, federal, or both governments presume jurisdiction over criminal offenses in Indigenous countries.  

This question was decided when the federal government essentially ended the exclusive Indigenous jurisdiction over crimes in Indigenous countries. Before exploring Indigenous justice practices, I would like to briefly contextualize the complex and confusing history of Indigenous jurisdiction. 

First, the General Crimes Act of 1817 extended federal jurisdiction over crimes committed on Indigenous land in cases where the defendant is non-Indigenous. At this time, the government only cared to interfere with crimes that involved non-Indigenous people. The Major Crimes Act in 1885 granted the federal government jurisdiction over serious crimes where the defendant is Indigenous, regardless of the victim’s identity. It originally listed seven offenses but has been increased to sixteen. After negotiation, tribal courts retained concurrent jurisdiction to prosecute Indigenous people for any conduct listed as a Section 1152 or Section 1153 felony. This means that an Indigenous defendant can be prosecuted by both the tribal justice system and the federal justice system for the same offense. This is because protection against double jeopardy in the Bill of Rights doesn’t apply to Indigenous nations.

Indigenous people gained more power to govern themselves in 1934 with the enactment of the Indian Reorganization Act. While it recognized tribal governments, the act offered money to those mirroring the U.S. Constitution, attempting to Americanize Indigenous societies. Many customs had disappeared, and Indigenous people were intentionally challenged to create self-government among distinct nations. 

Next, Congress enacted Public Law 280 in 1953, requiring six states to assume civil and criminal jurisdiction on reservations, meaning the federal government gave up jurisdiction over Indigenous people to those states. This law was opposed by Indigenous nations because it was an unconsensual process that further complicated and failed to recognize tribal self-determination. 

The Indian Civil Rights Act in 1968 offered states civil and criminal jurisdiction with the “consent of the tribe” over crimes in any Indigenous country in the state. It limited the sentencing powers of tribal courts but did not require the separation of church and state because of the importance of spirituality in all processes. The Tribal Law and Order Act in 2010 intended to improve tribal safety, slightly increasing tribal sentencing authority to a maximum of 3 years and a $15,000 fine. However, these new privileges were dependent on the imposition of further regulations regarding due process protections in tribal courts.  

Finally, the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) in 2013 authorized tribal courts special jurisdiction over non-Indigenous offenders in domestic violence cases. This was a landmark shift from the Supreme Court decision Oliphant v. Suquamish Indian Tribe in 1978, which held that tribal courts have no authority to prosecute non-Indigenous people, even if the victim was Indigenous. The VAWA was amended again in 2022 to expand special tribal jurisdiction to a list of covered crimes, including child and sexual violence, sex trafficking, and assault of Tribal justice workers. Indigenous courts can now prosecute and sentence regardless of the offender’s race for crimes against Indigenous victims that had commonly been ignored.

 

Indigenous people march and hold signs in the street to demonstrate their rights against colonization.
An image of Navajo people marching for the decolonization of Indigenous justice systems.    Source: Yahoo Images via Occupy Boston

 

Because of colonization, Indigenous peoples’ principles have gone unrecognized by America’s Anglo-centric justice system. Consequently, Indigenous nations retain limited power to create a befitting legal structure that administers justice. However, they continue to persevere and have cultivated distinct methods, such as restorative and healing practices. 

 

Harmony and Balance in Restorative Justice 

In Indigenous communities, restorative court systems are similar to traditional systems where a council of tribal elders or community leaders will facilitate conversations to resolve interpersonal problems. In this type of resolution, the compliance of the offender is necessary for the families involved. Most importantly, this process attempts to heal the underlying means for a crime, preventing repetitive behavior and aiding the offender’s reintegration into the community. These types of meetings are also known as forums and can be conducted within families and communities. 

In various areas of North America, circle sentencing reflects traditional Indigenous peacemaking aspects and has proven to be an effective approach to healing the offender, the victim, and the community. Specific practices vary by tribe, but the idea is to address participants’ feelings about how offenders can begin making up for their actions. Circle sentencing produces better satisfaction and healing, breaking the cycle of crime and allowing people to reconnect with spiritual traditions with the help of their community. In common Indigenous views, justice and spirituality are deeply connected. 

 

Restorative justice intends to improve ties between the offender, the victim, and the community to create a healing-centered process.
An image of a Venn diagram showing restorative justice goals of the overlapping healing between the victim, offender, and community. Source: Yahoo Images via eCampus Ontario Pressbooks

 

Tribal courts differ from other methods since they use written codes rather than being passed on through tradition. These judicial forums handle a range of legal problems and are led by judges from Indigenous communities. Most defendants or plaintiffs must represent themselves since the Indian Civil Rights Act does not ensure the right to legal counsel if individuals cannot afford an attorney. Tribal courts, interestingly, still tend to use family and community forums to handle interpersonal matters. This allows for alternative resolutions, sentencing, and victim-offender mediation. 

Indigenous courts intend to restore harmony and balance to one’s spirit, following the belief that people who are whole do not act harmfully. Judge Joseph Flies-Away from the Hualapai Nation says, “People do the worst things when they have no ties to people” and that “Tribal court systems are a tool to make people connected again.” 

 

Incorporation of Values In Peacekeeping Systems 

Indigenous peacekeeping systems promote the resolution of underlying problems and make an effort to keep relationships strong. Indigenous justice represents a holistic approach where communication is fluid rather than rehearsed. They recognize that argument is not an effective approach and that discussion is vital to review a problem in its entirety. Indigenous justice is inclusive of all affected individuals, different from the American justice system, which often excludes participants. 

The talking circle is common in Indigenous justice methods with no beginning and no individual in a dominant position. The colors red, black, white, and yellow can symbolize diversity in the human race, among other interpretations varying by tribe and tradition. A token, commonly a feather, is passed around the circle, encouraging all participants to have equal chances to speak freely and honestly.
An image of the Mi’kmaw culture symbolizes the talking circle with no beginning and no individual in a dominant position. The colors red, black, white, and yellow can symbolize diversity in the human race, among other interpretations varying by tribe and tradition. A token, commonly a feather, is passed around the circle, encouraging all participants to have equal chances to speak freely and honestly.
Source: Yahoo Images via Mi’kmaw Spirit

 

The Navajo Nation’s peacemaking process centers on the individual and helps an offender realize that what they have done is incorrect. Instead of labeling and punishing individuals as criminals to prevent them from repeating the behavior, the Navajo way separates the action from the individual. Retired Chief Justice Robert Yazzie of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court states that the process is related to k’e, meaning to restore one’s dignity and worthiness.  

What I find particularly remarkable about these concepts of justice is that, instead of adopting an immediate punitive approach aimed at simply removing the offender, the system focuses on correction and rehabilitation. Offenders are obligated to verbalize their accountability and take responsibility for changing their behavior. Instead of releasing the offender after their time is served, the system supports reparations to the victim(s) and community involving apology and forgiveness. These Indigenous restorative justice approaches are distinct from America’s legal process, which focuses on labeling and punishing the offender. Furthermore, traditional types of justice are able to promote communal healing and support in reintegration rather than hiring professionals to dispute a case with little interest in the community. 

 

An image of rocks stacked progressively higher symbolizes restorative justice practices of rebuilding an offender’s ties with society as they take accountability for the harm they have done.
Source: Yahoo Images via Policy Options

 

Indigenous leaders continue struggling to ensure that their justice systems are meaningful to their people. We rarely consider Indigenous justice systems, but maybe we ought to start. Please stay tuned for my next blog in this series, expanding on current struggles imposed on the Indigenous justice system and its people. 

Hopeless Efforts at Release on Parole from Alabama Prisons

by Eva Pechtl 

“They see me trying to do right, but my past is my problem,” said Terry Townshend, an inmate resembling countless others denied release on parole from Alabama’s prisons at astounding rates.

Two inmates sleep and one stands wearing prison uniforms. Some inmates will spend most of their time simply waiting, as not all prisons provide adequate opportunities for engagement in normal day-to-day activities.
An image of inmates waiting for the time to pass. Source: ProPublica via Yahoo Images

 

Before we begin, I encourage you to read Kala Bhattar’s posts on the extensive history and severity of the Alabama prison crisis concerning human rights. She offers valuable insights into the unique nature of the legal system in Alabama, and how its background connects to ever-present challenges in prisons today.

This post is going to explore the overwhelming decrease in parole rates being granted to prisoners by the Alabama Parole Board. The Alabama Bureau of Pardons and Paroles (ABPP) considers inmates eligible for parole after serving most of their sentence, allowing them to be released early from prison to reenter the community and complete service outside of prison walls. The declining rates of parole being granted are a barrier to the multifaceted issue of prison overcrowding pressed by understaffed facilities and increased prison violence. There are widely differing perspectives on the best strategies to calm the swelling chaos of prison overcrowding. To Alabama’s parole board, parole is not one of them.

It’s important to understand that parole is a privilege, not a right. Even if approved, inmates are released on strict conditions that may include reporting to a supervising officer, maintaining steady employment, not buying alcohol, or attending counseling to name a few. At any point, individuals can have their parole revoked and be reimprisoned. 

Parole hearings are conducted based on guidelines set forth by the ABPP. They are meant to consider whether an incarcerated person is likely to reoffend. The board considers the severity of an offender’s criminal history, risk assessments, reports of institutional behavior, participation in programs or treatment, and plans for navigating problems the offender is likely to face again during reentry. These guidelines have recently been criticized as flat-out ignored by the Parole Board, likely sparked following the consistently declining rate of parole actually being granted. According to the ABPP’s Monthly Statistical Reports, Alabama has gone from a grant rate of 54% in 2017 to 10% in 2022, and it reached as low as 2% in January of this year. 

A significant event sparking this change was Jimmy O’Neal Spencer, an inmate who was paroled in 2018 and, upon release, murdered three people. This tragic case led to tremendous pressure to keep inmates in prison and aligned with the sudden drop in grant rates beginning that year. When releasing convicted felons became understandably more controversial after Spencer’s release, the parole board’s actions were put under a microscope. The primary concern of the parole board seemed to shift to avoiding negative headlines.

 

Guidelines Being Overrun by Discretion

To be clear, the parole board ultimately has complete discretion over a decision, and the guidelines are meant to serve solely as an aid. Consequently, in May of 2023, the recommended 78% grant rate indicated by the guidelines was actually 18%. This raises questions about the disparities between parole guidelines and parole decisions. For one, why are the guidelines in place if they are consistently overlooked? This breach is represented by the conformance rate, which indicates the number of cases that matched the guidelines’ recommendation for grants or denials. It amounted to 23% in May, 14% in June, and 5% in July of 2023. This adds to years of disparities between recommended grant rates and actual grant rates present in Alabama. So, what is going on at parole hearings?

The precise reasons remain unclear. The parole board does not always articulate its reasons for approving or denying parole, even though they are required to by Alabama Code 15-22-26. Decisions were also commonly made based solely on the severity of an offense. Alabama determines the criteria for parole eligibility of certain offenses outlined in Section 15-22-27, but decisions are still weighed based on that information which the system has already approved. The point of having an additional hearing is to judge an inmate on who they are now.

Furthermore, race was an illuminated factor toward reentry this May, where 30% of decisions for White individuals conformed to the parole guidelines while 17% of decisions for Black applicants conformed to the same guidelines. However, I cannot comprehensively address the topic of race on reentry in this single blog.

 

The Power of Decision Makers

The drop in grant rates came promptly with Governor Kay Ivey’s appointment of Leigh Gwathney as the current board chair in 2019. Years later, Gwathney granted 2.4% parole of cases in the summer of 2023. Board members of the ABPP have tremendous discretion by law and have by no doubt used it to impact grant rates. Parole Watch documented a lack of attention toward the cases by the board and expanded on concerns about the three-chair system. A main takeaway from many perspectives on the hearing system is the influence the third seat can have on a hearing’s outcome. With two seats, the majority rule turns to a unanimous vote. When the board shrank to Gwathney’s seat, plus one, so did the grant rate from 13.2% in June to 4.1% in July. 

If parole is denied, the board determines an inmates’ set off date, or how long they will wait before being reconsidered for parole. Gwathney voted for the maximum set off date in 73.4% of denied cases in the summer of 2023, more than any other seat. What makes overcrowding a progressively hopeless matter is the fact that Alabama’s Department of Corrections has an opportunity to clear crowded and understaffed prisons of inmates that are eligible by the guidelines and obvious recommendation to leave. With an 80% decrease in parole grants from September 2019 to June 2020, the population in custody increased, even as custody admissions decreased. The impact of denying parole to so many is daringly increasing the pressure of prisons that are already way above full occupancy.

Parole hearings are open to the public, but unlike other states, Alabama does not allow offenders to represent themselves. Also, no rebuttal is allowed by supporters after opponents give the final word. Often, victims or advocates will misrepresent the facts leaving supporters of parole with no opportunity to correct them. According to Parole Watch’s observations, some representatives claimed to advocate for the victim but still opposed parole even if it supported the victim’s wishes. Opponents of parole like Victims of Crime and Leniency (VOCAL) and the Attorney General’s Office, proved to have a tremendous influence on the decisions of the parole board. Of the 78.3% of hearings this summer where VOCAL was present, 96.6% were denied. 

Inmates Are People Just Like Us

Aging inmates are pushed in wheelchairs outside by prison staff. The population of elderly inmates has risen dramatically in the past fifty years.
An image of aging inmates being pushed in wheelchairs outside by prison staff. Source: Yahoo Images via Unprison

 

71 year old Leola Harris, who has end-stage kidney failure, diabetes, and cannot walk or use the bathroom on her own, will likely die before her next hearing in 5 years. Having certification by the Department of Corrections for medical parole, testimonies by nursing home staff for a confirmed living plan, a successful lie detector test denying that she murdered the victim, and two decades of good behavior was not enough to get her out of prison for her remaining years.

This is reflected by many inmates who have numerous accomplishments to advocate for their improvement but are swiftly rejected. Terry Townshend has faced a life of drug addiction and resulting imprisonment, demonstrating fighting efforts to stay away from pills and crime. His release on parole failed when he got back into drugs after being given take-home narcotics after cancer surgery. Terry did everything he could to build personal responsibility from completing substance abuse treatment programs to earning a degree in trade school, and this in turn helped him understand his addiction and how to handle it without crime. However, like many, he was held down by his failures and rejected.

Timothy Bille, a now free man who was denied parole 4 times in 18 years, expressed that “They tell you to do all these prison programs to increase your chances for parole, but when they deny guys like Terry, it feels like a lie.” 

Finally, Frederick Bishop was denied parole at his hearing scheduled 10 days after he died in prison. Justice is not denying release to a corpse. His case demonstrates a lack of attention by the entire justice system toward informing relevant parties of an inmate’s status and judging them accordingly. 

The reality is that Alabama prisons have become more unsafe than the free world. Overcrowding in prisons is not as much due to new crime but to repeated declines of release for experienced inmates. Advocates for less violence and victimization in prison populations would agree that prisoners of minimal risk to their community, especially under careful supervision, should be granted freedom, and therefore safety. 

Jimmy O’Neal Spencer has been convicted, denied parole, and sentenced to death. It is time that thousands of others who are stuck in Alabama’s combusting, debilitating conditions deserve real chances at parole.