Prison overcrowding pressures Alabama Board of Pardons and Paroles to release more inmates

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Ala. -  More than 20,000 people are behind bars in Alabama prisons. The Alabama Department of Corrections reported the facilities, collectively, are designed to hold half that many.

WHNT NEWS 19 continues digging deeper into the state's parole board while Jimmy O'Neal Spencer, a parolee and now capital murder suspect, awaits his trial. Spencer is the suspect in the July 13 murders of Marie Martin, her seven-year-old great-grandson Colton Lee, and her neighbor Martha Reliford.

Franklin County District Attorney Joey Rushing tried to keep Spencer in prison for fear of what he might do if he got out.

"There's also some, like Mr. Spencer, that don't deserve a second chance any time soon without major, major, strict conditions," Rushing said of paroling someone with a life sentence. Rushing acknowledged some inmates, those convicted of non-violent or drug crimes, do deserve parole.

Rushing thought Spencer would be in prison for much longer than the 32 years he served. The board voted to parole Spencer in November 2017.

Under rules set up in 2015, he was never notified Spencer was up for parole.

One month before the murders in Guntersville, Spencer was charged with crimes in Sardis in Etowah County. Police Chief James Harp said they would have held the parolee for the state, but the state never flagged him.

"[The] sheriff's office always runs a check to see if anybody's got holds on them, or warrants from other counties or other cities," Chief James Harp recalled. "If they do, they hold them for that city. If that city or county will come pick them up, or if there's a hold for probation, parole or anything like that, they'll hold them for them. There were no holds."

Experts said the state's interest is in reducing overcrowded prisons, not bringing paroled inmates back. Retired Parole Officer Glenn Melton said passing the 2015 prison reform, aimed at reducing overcrowding, put pressure on parole officers and the board to get people out.

"The prison system now is so over-burdened with inmates that unless somebody does something to relieve the over-crowding, the federal government's going to step in and take over the prison system," Melton said.