Advancing Parole Board Reform in Alabama

In the “land of the free” and “home of the brave,” and perhaps nowhere more than in Alabama, the overuse of incarceration—physically and psychologically ripping families apart instead of doing more to address the root causes of crime—has to change.

The insidious, inhuman harm mass incarceration inflicts affects us all. But by the same token, it’s important to acknowledge, especially as Alabama sets course on building a billion-dollar prison, it’s poor Black and brown families at every turn who suffer most in our criminal “justice” system. Disproportionately it’s poor Black and brown men and women whose futures some Alabama officials are conspicuously conscribing in outrageously overpriced, to-be-built, cells.

Rep. Chris England, a Democrat from Tuscaloosa—and a long-time advocate for justice and prison reform in Alabama—is trying, again, on numerous fronts, in the new legislative session, to effect change. He needs your support. Specifically, on Wednesday, March 22nd, there will be a vote in the Alabama House of Representatives on House Bill (“HB”) 16: sensical and just parole board reform legislation England has authored.

As was adeptly reported by’s Mike Cason, with HB 16, England is “renewing his efforts to bring scrutiny to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles, which rejected parole for 90 percent of eligible [prisoners] last fiscal year, the fifth straight year for paroles to decline and the highest rejection rate during that time.” In January, the Associated Press’s Kim Chandler highlighted the Board’s unacceptable parole denial rate and unempathetic rulings—even its unfettered cruelty—reporting on the parole denial of seventy-one year-old Leola Harris; Chandler reported how, after serving 19 years of a 35-year murder sentence, the frail Ms. Harris, confined to a wheelchair, undergoing dialysis, and in end-stage renal failure, had asked to live out her final days in a nursing home—a request the Board callously rejected.

England’s bill would create guidelines—developed by a “Criminal Justice Policy Development Council”—for the three-member parole board to follow in deciding whether or not to grant parole. As reported by Cason, the new guidelines would be based on: The risk to reoffend based on a validated risk and needs assessment; progress by the prisoner in complying with a plan for reentry; input from victims, the family of victims, prosecutors, and law enforcement; participation in risk-reduction programs while incarcerated; severity of the underlying offense; and any statement from the prisoner. Critically, as it concerns due process of law and fundamental fairness—so abysmally absent in the Board’s current operation—in cases when the Board deviates from the guidelines to deny parole, prisoners would have a right to appeal to the Alabama Court of Criminal Appeals.

The common sense—and refreshing decency—of England’s parole board reform-legislation should be obvious to all fair-minded, justice-loving Alabamians. But I want to add to this conversation—a conversation about public safety, crime and punishment, and what we mean when we throw around words like “justice”—by adding a personal anecdote, one about my former client, Christopher (“Chris”) Revis. Writing in 2020 why “‘Just Mercy’ and Justice do not exist in Alabama,” I described how, for more than five years, Revis was imprisoned on death row waiting for a constitutionally mandated new trial he was ordered to have.

Since I last wrote about Chris’s case, he agreed to a negotiated plea and is serving a sentence of life with the possibility of parole. Nearing twenty years of incarceration—for the murder of Gerald “Jerry” Stidham, a well-known dealer of prescription pain pills in Marion County, in February 2004—Chris became eligible for parole in the fall of 2021. Having represented Chris as an Assistant Federal Defender, I wrote and published online a comprehensive—and I would submit compelling—“Open Letter to the Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles” for Chris. (My letter was accompanied by various attachments showing Chris’s impressive achievements behind bars, as well as moving letters of support for Chris from three other attorneys who worked on his case—including two respected public defenders, and a civil rights lawyer for the federal government.)

After waiting for more than a year, last fall, Chris finally received his long-awaited parole hearing, though he was not allowed to attend. After I begged to no avail just about all of the area public interest organizations equipped to advocate for Chris at his hearing, I was finally able to obtain for Chris—through the assistance of my former boss, Federal Public Defender Christine Freeman—an Alabama attorney, Dustin Fowler, to appear before the Board to advocate for Chris.

Here’s what happened: Fowler was given four-minutes to present Chris’s case in a sham hearing—a hearing akin to a proceeding somewhere between a kangaroo court and an episode of “Judge Judy” (though in fairness to Judge Judy, her rulings usually seemed thoughtful, and based on some kind of perceptible reasoning, even if oft-delivered in harsh rebukes). After that, without rhyme or reason—and not based on any perceptible reasonable criteria, or decision-making, in a judgment not legally reviewable by any court (under current law)—Chris was denied parole eligibility until 2027.

And so, as I maintained in 2020, although I don’t relish being in the role of spoiler and bearer of bad news: In my opinion, based on my own personal experience, before “just mercy” can be anything but a wishful and fleeting slogan on highway billboards in Alabama, the state must first be able to competently and fairly provide justice to its citizens. Citizens like Christopher Revis. So far it hasn’t. HB 16, Rep. England’s reasonable, critically important legislation—if enacted—could finally, finally, help start to roll Alabama’s criminal “justice” tide in the right direction. Please, please, implore every politician in Alabama to get behind this bill. Alabama prisoners, their friends and families—true “fairness” and “justice”—can’t wait any longer for parole board reform.

Stephen Cooper is a former D.C. public defender who worked as an assistant federal public defender in Alabama between 2012 and 2015. He has contributed to numerous magazines and newspapers in the United States and overseas. He writes full-time and lives in Woodland Hills, California.