A state lawmaker who has long advocated for changes to the criminal justice system will lead Alabama’s Bureau of Pardons and Paroles. State Sen. Cam Ward from Alabaster, takes over the new role on Monday and will resign from his position in the Senate.
Ward replaces outgoing director and former state judge Charlie Graddick, who announced his resignation last month.
The transition marks the end of a contentious one-year term for Graddick, who was appointed in 2019 by Gov. Kay Ivey to restructure the agency.
Graddick’s office said he made many improvements, hiring dozens of probation and parole officers and upgrading facilities. But Graddick has been criticized for discouraging paroles despite an overcrowding crisis in state prisons. According to the most recent report from the Alabama Department of Corrections, there are more than 20,000 state inmates in facilities built to house around 12,000 people.
Since Graddick took over in September 2019, the number of people granted parole has plummeted to the lowest level in years, according to a report by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Bureau’s three-member parole board is scheduling fewer hearings than in years past and has experienced additional delays due to the pandemic. Of the cases that came before it, the board granted fewer than 20 percent of paroles from September 2019 through August 2020.
While Graddick did not make parole decisions, he defended the board and the decline in parole rates during a 2020 state budget hearing, saying many incarcerated people do not qualify for parole.
Ward has been critical of Graddick’s leadership of the Bureau in the past. As the incoming director, he said there needs to be a more balanced approach to making parole decisions and the parole board should not be “re-trying every case.”
During his 10 years in the state legislature, Ward led many efforts to change Alabama’s prison system, which is among the country’s most overcrowded and violent. He sponsored legislation in 2015 that helped lower the prison population and was part of a group of lawmakers spearheading several unsuccessful reform bills in 2020.
Ward said although the Bureau of Pardons and Paroles operates separately from the prison system, the two can work together to improve issues like recidivism.
“One of the Bureau’s biggest roles should be re-entry back into society,” Ward said. “And that’s something I do want to change and make that a big part of the mission.”
He said the Bureau faces many challenges, including low morale and a lack of communication between the director and the three-member parole board.
The state agency is understaffed and in high demand, with roughly 370 officers currently supervising more than 27,000 people on probation and parole throughout Alabama.