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Justice in America Episode 22: Probation and Parole

Josie Duffy Rice and guest host Donovan X. Ramsey talk with LaTonya Tate, executive director and founder of the Alabama Justice Initiative, about probation and parole.

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About 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, but about 6.7 million people are under some form of correctional control. The difference between these two numbers is due to the 4.5 million adults under community supervision, almost twice the number of people who are incarcerated. The two most common types of community supervision? Parole and probation. On this episode of Justice in America, host Josie and guest host Donovan X. Ramsey explore probation and parole – what they mean, how they work, and how they contribute to mass incarceration. They’re joined by LaTonya Tate, the founder and executive director of Alabama Justice Initiative in Birmingham, Alabama. LaTonya became a parole officer after she was forced to watch her son navigate the criminal justice system. 

LaTonya Tate’s Book recommendation: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson.

Additional resources:

Since we recorded this episode in the fall, The Appeal has covered some major changes in how different states, such as Maryland and Pennsylvania, have changed their practices and policies around parole. Two stories are particularly notable: First, in Alabama— where LaTonya Tate’s organization, the Alabama Justice Initiative, is based— changes in leadership have made it harder for people serving time to be granted parole. The second notable story is out of Virginia, where just last month, the state passed a bill that will make people serving time for crimes they committed as children eligible for parole, giving many people who have been in prison since childhood an opportunity at release.

Prison Policy’s report on community supervision contains a ton of information on exactly how the system operates and who is controls.

Here’s the Marshall Project article on Reynaldo Rodriguez mentioned in the episode.

Check out this Governing article, “Probation and Parole Violations Are Filling Up Prisons and Costing States Billions.”

Here’s another report from the Council of State Governments, called Confined and Costly

Justice in America is available on Apple Podcasts, Soundcloud, Sticher, GooglePlay Music, Spotify, and LibSyn RSS. You can also check us out on Facebook and Twitter.

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[Begin Clip]

LaTonya Tate: And when these individuals have served so much time in prison, I don’t understand why you still have to have probation or parole even attach to further traumatize individuals. You’ve caged people for 10 or 15 or 20 years and you’ve given people life sentences and we have people in Alabama that are out, that are on lifetime parole. So when I say re-imagine probation and parole, I want to be able to get with legislators and lawmakers and see how we can disconnect one’s prison sentence away from probation and parole.

[End Clip]

Josie Duffy Rice: Hi I’m Josie Duffy Rice. 

Donovan Ramsey: And I’m Donovan Ramsey.

Josie: And this is Justice in America. Each show we discuss a topic in the American criminal justice system and we try to explain what it is and how it works. Thank you so much everyone for joining us today. 

Donovan: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast and like us on Facebook at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts. We’d love to hear from you. 

Josie: So I’m really excited today we have one of our guest hosts joining us for the first time, Donovan Ramsey. If you haven’t listened to Donovan’s 10 questions that we did with him as sort of an intro, I highly suggest you listen. He has a lot to share and is doing some amazing work in this space and is also one of my favorite people and one of my good friends and also lives here in Atlanta. So thank you so much, Donovan, for joining us. 

Donovan: Thank you for having me Josie. 

Josie: So we opened the show with a clip from our guest LaTonya Tate. LaTonya is the Executive Director and Founder of the Alabama Justice Initiative, which is based in Birmingham and she’s a 2018 Soros Justice Fellow. LaTonya is also the mother of a formerly incarcerated son and a retired probation and parole officer, formerly with the Florida Department of Corrections where she worked for nearly a decade. 

Donovan: LaTonya is here today to help us talk about probation and parole. But first we’re going to do our word of the day. And today’s word is: community. 

Josie: Not community in general, but community in the criminal justice context.

Donovan: Right. So we hear this term a lot, especially if you work in or around criminal justice, community policing, community supervision, community corrections and community is such a nice word, right? You know, it makes people think that law enforcement is doing something good and supportive rather than causing harm in particular communities. 

Josie: Right.

Donovan: That’s why elected officials and others love using the term community policing.

Josie: Right. So community policing in theory is an approach that the National Institute of Justice described as quote, “a philosophy of full service, personalized policing.” Where the police quote “work in a proactive partnership with citizens to identify and solve problems.” Full service, personalized policing. Who wants that?

Donovan: It’s like white glove policing, you know, ‘we come in, we yell at you a little bit just right in your house.’

Josie: Right. I mean, first of all, we know what personalized policing looks like. Right? 

Donovan: Right. 

Josie: We’ve seen personalized policing. That’s why black men who are unarmed get shot in the street.

Donovan: Absolutely. 

Josie: We know personalized policing is not a great thing. The problem is not that police treat people with too much equality. 

Donovan: Yeah. Well, I mean really what it kind of highlights I think is that you want the police to really focus on crime and not to be necessarily all up in your business, but it seems that this whole theory and approach behind community policing is that the police need to be in your face. 

Josie: Right. 

Donovan: And it’s funny, it’s supposed to be a response to something like broken windows policing.

Josie: Right. 

Donovan: But the way that it took form and still, you know, kind of exists is it works hand in hand with broken windows.

Josie: Right. Yeah. This was a big thing when Bill Clinton was president and it was a major part of the 1994 Crime Bill, which was obviously in hindsight a pretty big failure. And in fact it was that Crime Bill that created the Community Oriented Policing Services Program, otherwise known as the COPS Program. That’s the acronym. That’s what it spells. So this is a federal government spending program that gives the federal government the power to give money to local police departments to hire quote “community police officers.” And here’s a clip from the 1996 State of the Union where Bill Clinton is talking about community policing.

[Begin Clip]

Bill Clinton: Our fourth grade challenge is to take our streets back from crime and gangs and drugs. At last, we have begun to find a way to reduce crime. Forming community partnerships with local police forces to catch criminals and prevent crime. This strategy, called community policing, is clearly working.

[End Clip

Donovan: Over the next 21 years, the federal government gave $14 billion away to local police departments. $14 billion. And what did they get for that money? Well, it’s not totally clear, but it seems like not much. David Cooper used to be the police chief in Madison, Wisconsin. He was a big proponent of community policing back in the day. But a few years ago he called the COPS Program quote “a multi-year charade.” Cooper said, “What a lot of chiefs did under pressure is they established a community policing unit, but they didn’t change what else they were doing.”

Josie: I think when Cooper says nobody changed what they were doing, what he’s getting at is that the word community is just vague. So community policing can be anything. Right? And a lot of the places where you see police violence in the past few years, they’ve been getting money from the federal government for community policing. 

Donovan: And it’s weird because community is such a catch all term.

Josie: Totally. 

Donovan: But it’s almost impossible to draw lines around what a community actually is, right? 

Josie: Right.

Donovan: People have to be in community with each other. You can’t kind of just designate them a community and then decide that, you know, you’re going to police them in a different way than you police, I mean, I guess other communities. 

Josie: Exactly, exactly. And you guys can probably imagine what the communities that got the most community policing looked like, right? This is not the community policing that you see in the white suburbs. It’s the community policing you see in the middle of New York. 

Donovan: Yeah. Basically the bottom line is that the federal government funneled billions of dollars to police departments across the country with no real evidence that this practice actually worked or produced results when it came to bringing down crime, stopping violence or building better relations between police departments and the folks that they police. 

Josie: Right. Exactly. Exactly. So that was our word of the day: community.

Josie: So over the past few seasons we’ve tried to cover all aspects of criminal justice and the hope is that we want to make clear that being quote “system involved” can look a lot of different ways. It doesn’t just mean you’re in jail, it doesn’t just mean you’re in prison. 

Donovan: Yeah. So we’re trying to show that when we talk about mass incarceration, we’re actually talking about something much bigger, which is basically our system of mass punishment. It’s not just the time a person spends locked up, it’s what comes before and after, including supervision. 

Josie: Right. The supervision part is what we’re getting at today. So let’s say you’ve gone through the whole thing. You’ve been arrested, you’re arraigned, your bail was set, your trial was held, and ultimately you are convicted, you are sent to prison or sometimes to jail or sometimes to probation to serve your sentence. What happens when you get out?

Donovan: Usually what happens is the next leg of your sentence what’s called probation or parole and that’s what we’re talking about today. People don’t tend to think of parole and probation as part of the sentence, but they are. Together they’re what’s routinely called community supervision. While the term sounds nice and reasonable, the practice often isn’t.

Josie: Again, another example of community being used as a way of describing something.

Donovan: You can just throw community on anything. 

Josie: If you take anything from Justice in America, take that. So let’s start with some numbers. For people listening, how many people do you think are under community supervision today? And that means the total number of people on probation or parole. So just get a number in your head. The answer is about 4.5 million people, which is more than three times what it was in 1980. Our “community supervision system” quote is unnecessarily impacting millions of people and yet many people don’t really even know what it is exactly.

Donovan: Like so many other facets of the system the definition of community supervision can shift depending on the state or jurisdiction, but generally probation and parole are supervisory sentences, meaning they are sentences served in the community under the supervision of a probation or parole office instead of a prison. There are also conditional sentences. That means that if someone violates their probation or parole, they can and often are sent to prison to serve the remainder of their sentence. 

Josie: Right, so you’re on probation and you do something to violate your probation agreement, you can get picked up and sent to jail or sent back to jail. Both forms of supervision can be split into sort of two major categories. There’s active probation and parole and inactive probation and parole. Inactive probation and parole means that a person doesn’t have to adhere to such strict rules or check in as often usually because they’ve been on supervision for awhile and they’ve been deemed low risk. But active parole and probation is much, much, much more onerous and a lot of people think that being on probation or parole means that a person simply has to meet with their probation officer once a month maybe or maybe take a drug test every few months. But that really often is not the case.

Donovan: In a lot of places being under active supervision can mean that law enforcement is basically tracking your every move and the smallest mistake can send you to prison for years, but we’ll get to that. One thing to note about “community supervision” — air quotes — is that it looks vastly different from state to state. Basically every state in America has too many people under correctional control, but some states are worse than others and according to the Prison Policy Institute, which has published a lot of work on this issue, much of the variation between states is due to non carceral supervision. 

Josie: Right. So if you live in Pennsylvania, you’re almost twice as likely to be under some form of correctional control than you are if you live in New York, even though the two states have basically the same crime rate. And meanwhile, Massachusetts and West Virginia have basically the same overall correctional control rate. but in Massachusetts, 72 percent of people who are under correctional control are on probation compared to just 28 percent in West Virginia. So in other words, the correctional control rate is about the same but in some States, a lot of that is people under supervision and in other states, a lot of that is people in prison. One thing worth mentioning Donovan is that right now, both of us live in Atlanta, which is obviously in the state of Georgia and Georgia supervision numbers are completely outrageous.

Donovan: Right. On average, the number of people on probation and parole in America is a little over 1,300 people per capita, and that means that’s 1,300 people for every 100,000 people in the country. But in Georgia, that number is 5,300 people. Because of our probation and parole numbers, we have the highest rate of people under correctional control in the country. While probation and parole are similar in some ways, there are some key differences. People are often sentenced to probation in lieu of prison or jail, especially when convicted of a relatively minor offense. Parole, on the other hand, is the early release of a prisoner who agrees to abide by certain conditions. Probation tends to mean you can remain in your community, whereas being granted parole means you can return to your community. Probation isn’t contingent on incarceration. 

Josie: One thing that’s important to note is that there are many, many more people on probation than on parole. So as of last year there are about 840,000 people on parole in the country and about 3.6 million people on probation. Another important difference between the two and one of the most crucial is how you’re actually granted each form of supervision. So probation has kind of a fixed sentence. You will be sentenced to six months in jail and two years probation or five years in jail and 10 years probation. If you’re sentenced to probation, you know the general parameters of your sentence. When the judge sentences you, you will know the general parameters of your sentence. 

Donovan: But that’s not how parole works, right? So in most states to be granted parole, a parole board has to hear your case and actually grant release. So when you hear that someone received a sentence of let’s say 15 to life, that means that after 15 years, that person will be up for parole. The board could grant them parole the very first time, or the board could refuse to ever grant them parole for the rest of their life. Perhaps unsurprisingly, parole boards are trending in the harsher direction. 

Josie: Yeah. So a few years ago, The Marshall Project and the Washington Post co-published a story about a man named Reynaldo Rodriguez. Reynaldo was 19 when he killed a man during this sort of ongoing family feud. And this was back in the mid 1970s. And in 1977 he pled guilty to second degree murder and he was offered a choice. 

Donovan: He could either take a life sentence, which would make him eligible for parole in 10 years or he could take a 15 to 30 year since and be eligible for parole and 12 years. 12 years, you know, given good behavior, time served, stuff like that. 

Josie: Right. 

Donovan: Now obviously, even though the life sentence meant he’d be eligible for parole earlier, the risk was higher. So in the best case scenario, he could get out in 10 years instead of 12 but the worst case scenario, he’d be in prison for life. 

Josie: Right. But the judge said to Reynaldo that as long as he was a quote “model prisoner,” he would recommend release in 10 years. And so Reynaldo thought his chances were pretty good. And so he took the life sentence. 37 years later, he was still in prison.

Donovan: Parole boards look different in different states, but what they have in common is unfortunately the bad stuff, they’re often powerful with total power and no check over their decisions. People in prison have no right to due process and parole hearings, which only worsens the problem. In half of states, parole boards don’t have to give any explanation for why they deny parole. In Kentucky and New Mexico incarcerated people appearing in front of parole boards were not allowed to even have legal representation. In Alabama, they’re not even allowed to attend their own parole hearings. 

Josie: So let’s talk briefly just about how wild this is. Let’s say you’ve been in prison for 30 years and you’ve changed your whole life and you want to tell the parole board about it in Alabama, you want to be able to show them how different you are and they are supposed to be able to assess whether or not you can get out, but you can’t even be there at the parole hearing, it’s pretty wild. 

Donovan: It kinda just goes to show that these parole boards are not really there to assess whether or not, you know, an individual has actually corrected their behavior or been reformed in some sense. That they’re there just to be a rubber stamp on the system to say, ‘Hey, we have this thing, and that this possibility exists.’ Whether it does in actuality or not. 

Josie: Exactly. And there’s basically no political pushback either. So for listeners, but also for us, can you name a member of your state parole board? I can’t.

Donovan: Couldn’t if there was a gun to my head. 

Josie: Right, exactly. 

Donovan: Yeah. 

Josie: I have no idea who’s on my parole board in Georgia. I didn’t know who was on it in New York. And we do this work, right? 

Donovan: Yeah. 

Josie: You know, in fact, sort of the only time that parole boards get criticized is when someone they released on parole commits another crime. So here’s a clip of Erica Tyndall. She used to be the chair of the Connecticut parole board and she appeared in the Al Jazeera documentary series called The System. This episode was called “Parole: High Risks, High Stakes.”

[Begin Clip]

Erica Tyndall: Whenever I see something that has happened in the news, my first reaction is to say, please god, don’t let this person have been someone that we released on parole.

[End Clip]

Donovan: There are other examples of how this plays out too. In 1993, in Maryland, Rodney Stokes, a lifer ruined work release, killed his girlfriend and committed suicide. Maryland’s next Governor, Parris Glendening said, “Life means life and stop paroling people serving life with parole sentences.” In Arkansas in 2013, a teenager was killed by someone out on parole, and in the last six months of that year alone, the number of people out on parole that had their sentences revoked, meaning they had to return to prison, went up 300 percent.

Josie: In Massachusetts, where I once represented parole clients, most of the parole board resigned in 2011 due to Deval Patrick’s theory after a man named Dominic Cinelli was released on parole and then killed a police officer. Here’s another clip from that same Al Jazeera documentary talking about this case.

[Begin Clip]

Man #1: We see a tremendous failure of the parole system. 

Man #2: The resignation of five parole board members has everyone talking. 

Woman #1: The governor fired those responsible for supervising Cinelli after he was released. 

Woman #2:The result for Massachusetts was a tremendous drop in parole rates for 2011 in 2012 and that cost the state a tremendous amount of money. The new board was very, very reluctant to parole people, especially lifers, and hardly anyone received parole that first year after the Cinelli incident.

[End Clip]

Donovan: Literally, that’s the worst thing that could happen when someone’s on parole is they could kill a police officer. 

Josie: Totally. And I actually think in this case, if I remember correctly, it was like a day later. 

Donovan: Damn. 

Josie: Yeah. 

Donovan: The problem with community supervision goes far beyond parole boards though, even for those on probation or those who managed to be granted parole, the requirements are extreme. People under community supervision can be required to waive their constitutional rights, wear a GPS tracker, attend expensive classes, and allow random visits of family, friends, and workplaces. Those who failed to meet the stringent requirements are often being sent back to prison for technical violations. And as a result, as much as 40 percent of prison admission right now are driven by people who have not committed real crime or caused real harm, but done something has Banal as missed a meeting or let their ankle monitor run out of a battery for about two minutes. 

Josie: I think this sort of gets back to your point about parole boards, that the idea of probation and parole was supposed to be an alternative to incarceration and ability to really stop having so many people in prison and giving people the chance to improve. And what it’s actually become is another way to drive people back into prison. Right?

Donovan: This is the main thing to know about community supervision in America. It’s basically a set up to fail. To discuss this some more we’ll be joined by our guest LaTonya Tate. LaTonya is the Executive Director and Founder of the Alabama Justice Initiative based in Birmingham, Alabama. She’s also a 2018 Soros Justice Fellow. 

Josie: LaTonya will join us in just a minute, so stay tuned. 


Josie: Thank you so much LaTonya, for joining us. We’re so happy to have you. 

LaTonya Tate: Thank you. 

Josie: Can you start by telling us about what you’re working on now? 

LaTonya Tate: Well, what I’m working on now is in 2018 I was selected along with 15 other amazing individuals from different parts of the state and my project is probation and parole practices in Alabama and that’s what I’m working on here in the state of Alabama because my former career was a probation and parole officer for nearly a decade with the state of Florida. Our system here in Alabama is just really broken, so I’m really just trying to dive in and get some bold parole reform passed. What you’re seeing on the other circuits and in other states, people who are real progressive to pass parole reform. It’s going to be a challenge. I’m up for the challenge and it’s all about educating the community and those that are impacted by the collateral consequences that one faces while they are on supervision.

Donovan: LaTonya, can you tell me exactly how you came to be a probation and parole officer of Florida?

LaTonya Tate: Well, it was in 2001, my son was 19 at the time. He was arrested for a robbery 1, which robbery 1 carries 20 years to life in prison. And he was sentenced to a 20 year prison sentence, split four years to serve in prison. And eight months into him being released from prison, they called it a split sentence in Alabama. So it was during that time, I had graduated out of nursing school and it was just a trying time for my family, put a lot of burden, a lot of heartache on the family and I can remember traveling to the prison and just having a meltdown and my career just immediately shifted. And I went back to school to get my degree in criminal justice, which now I have a master’s degree in criminal justice. And my son’s split sentence got taken away because he had gotten a citation in prison and they reported the infraction back to the judge and he called them back to court and he took the split and he put him on the straight 20 years, which means that the split was off the table and now we’re doing straight 20.

Josie: Can you explain what your son was sentenced to? Where he got resentenced or had to serve the whole 20?

LaTonya Tate: Yeah. When we originally got sentenced, he was sentenced to a 20 year prison sentence cause robbery 1, which is a violent crime in the state of Alabama, it carries, the low end is 20 years and you can serve up to life in prison. So he was given a 20 year prison sentence with four years to serve on the 20. And with the four years to serve and once he completed the four years, he would come out on five years probation. But he still had the remainder of that 20 year sentence attached to that.

Josie: I see what you’re saying. 

LaTonya Tate: So what I learned in the process of being sentenced to a split sentence that you were to go to prison and be a model prisoner, which means that you could not get any infractions, you couldn’t get any disciplinaries. All of that stuff was reported back to the judge. So it was during that time that the judge called him back to court. They brought him back to court and they did, the judge took his split. So that’s called revocation because he had the probation attached to it. So that means that he split, they did what they call a revocation. So the split was off the table. The four years was off the table, even though he had served three years and four months and only had eight months to go. That was off the table. So now we were on the straight 20 which means he goes back to DoC and the time has to be recalculated to put him on straight 20 years. And that looks like being in prison all that time being calculating after you’ve been there five years, you’re eligible for parole date, which you will be waiting, it could be a year before, you know, you got a date coming up. It could be two years. So once the five years was met, you know that you are eligible because you made one third of that time. So we made parole in ‘08 and he got out in ‘08. He stayed out for about seven years and in 2013 he went back to prison on a technical violation.

Josie: Okay. Gosh, the system in Alabama is so bad. So were you living in Florida already?

LaTonya Tate: No, I lived in a little small town called Enterprise, Alabama, which is close to the Florida line. So I just commuted back and forth. So it’s just like driving from one city to another city.

Josie: Right. I’m just wondering if you can talk about what made you want to take on this new job as a parole/probation officer because of what your son went through. Cause obviously this is not, most people who have a family member or a loved one in the system don’t change careers because of it. They don’t sort of make this big decision. So I would love to hear you talk about what was it about this that made you decide to want to do that.

LaTonya Tate:  What really made me decide to do that is because again, my first career was a nurse. I had already gone to school, graduated from LPN school, had goals to go back and get my RN to become a nurse, anaesthetist and just be in the medical field. But when my son got arrested and with my family and me not ever being around people that had went to jail or went to prison, my brother was arrested for probably drinking and driving and went to the city jail. But that wasn’t like felony jail, you know, learning felony laws. And you would see people in the community or those that you may have grown up with went to jail, so out of sight, out of mind, and if it wasn’t affecting me or my family, I just had this mentality that I didn’t care. But when it hit my family, my whole perception changed. So that looked like for me in order for me to really just find out what was really transpiring, I had to switch careers and it was a process. It was something that I really had to pray about and think about. Am I making the right move? So I went back to school, got my bachelor’s, and then I got this job offer in Florida. I was the only African American in a little small town called DeFuniak Springs. I was the only female officer, African American in my office. So I worked in a rural white town. In a lot of ways people associated DeFuniak, people travel to the beach in Florida, that County is called Walton. And a lot of people are familiar with Destin, Florida. So my caseload was 95 percent caucasian individuals that had drug problems. And, and when I did the job, I looked at people as looking at my son, you know, looking at the opportunity that those that were in Florida committing the same type of crimes he had, they were probably placed on probation. So it just showed me the disparities that were in the system. And I had so much power being an officer where I could have been this type of person where I took out what I was going through on people, but I didn’t see people like that. I valued those that were set before me like humans. I’m going to treat these people like I want somebody to treat my son. So I did everything in my power to make sure that those that were suffering with drug abuse problems, mental illness problems, to try to seek treatment for them. I’m not gonna go on the record and tell people that people that were on my caseload never went to jail cause I would, you know, would be lying if I said that. Some people did go to jail, but I always left the supervision up to the individual. You’re on supervision, let’s work this plan and I’m here for you. But if you choose not to work this plan, I still have a job that I have to do.

Josie: Right. 

Donovan: I’m curious, having been on both sides of probation and parole, one as an officer, but also as the mother of someone that had to deal with that practice, do you think that it’s a system that we need in our criminal justice system?

LaTonya Tate: I think truly, you know, it’s a balance because I had to balance being a professional person, carrying a gun and a badge and knowing that I had a son sitting in Alabama prison. I seriously think that there is room for growth and I think that people need to really look and reimagine what true probation and parole reform looks like because I just had this conversation with someone. I said, you know, we were so focused on the front door of this thing mass incarceration, but people fail to look at the elephant was growing with mass supervision, which you know, we got over 6 million people that’s on probation or parole or some type of electronic monitoring. Where does this stop? Where does it end? You know, I just think being on both sides and being a mom, as a person that’s directly impacted, I tell people, I do know that there’s room for growth. I do know there is room for training because you’re not going to have officers like me that’s coming into this field. You’re going to have these young people that are college grads and you give them a gun and you give them power and they’re going to feel so empowered that they are not looking at or trying to even work out a plan for the individual that they’re supervising because keep in mind, a lot of these people have not traveled a road or the shoes or lived in the communities that most of these people live in. So the easiest thing for a person to do, and I tell this all the time, and I say this every stage I hit on, the easiest thing for a PO when a person is not following the rules is to put them in jail. So that’s called easy case management because when you can put people in jail and lock them up in jail, you know where they are. You don’t have to worry about them being a nuisance to the neighborhood. And then we talk about this thing of it’s public safety. Yeah, we all want public safety, but we got to talk about public dollars and taxpayers money that we’re wasting having people on long term supervision. We got to shift that narrative.

Josie: So when you were in Florida and you were serving as a probation/parole officer, the other probation/parole officers that you were around, how often were they sending people back for technical violations? What were the other people in the office, how were they sort of different in how they were doing their job versus how you were doing yours?

LaTonya Tate: Well, you know, being the only African American female in the office, my colleagues, that’s what they did in Florida. I mean that was the norm. If a person tested positive for drugs, we did a violation, a warrant, and the affidavit, we issued a warrant for the arrest. But I soon learned that Florida had what they called a judicial preference list and we were broken down by circuits. So you look at the judge in that circuit. If you had a case that was from Broward County or Dade County, which is Miami and Broward being Fort Lauderdale and you were supervising them in Walton County because they had moved to that county, you look on this judicial preference list and you see what the judge’s preference was if they tested positive for drugs, most judges only wanted you to send a technical letter, which means, and what that looks like is if you had a person that, you know, maybe it was on for drug use and then they started back using and the judge wanted a technical letter, as the PO you can say, okay, even sending a technical letter back, you can tell the judge, please tell this person to submit to a substance abuse eval and enter treatment deemed necessary. So you can add that condition onto that person because they showed the judge that you really was trying to keep the person in the community and trying to help them. And the judge would, you know, sign off on it. And then at that point you would start instructing the person to go to substance abuse classes. And any treatment that was deemed necessary. And then those that they were really out there, you can actually have them put into some type of treatment facility. So I did have that done and a lot of my colleagues, you know, kind of start driving their cars in that direction. But for the most part this is what they were known for doing the warrant, the affidavit and the violation, just to put them in jail. You know, when I kind of started leaning that way and a lot of people didn’t know at that time that I had a son sitting in prison, they just didn’t understand. All that they knew that I was into, so engulfed in reentry where my supervisor made me the resource reentry officer and I was the liaison for the prisoner. I also taught GED classes at our local jail through the Northwest Florida State College. So a lot of my colleagues would come to me and try to refer people out or I just try to talk them into doing, it is their cases so you really can’t tell them what to do because they supervise these people and you haven’t really had the contact with the person, you know, a lot of people went to jail on technical violations.

Donovan: Yeah.

Josie: Right. 

Donovan: So given that, I mean it makes me really wonder if I was a person that was going to be released on probation or parole and you had a few minutes to explain to me how I can avoid having technical violations, I mean, what would you say? 

LaTonya Tate: Well, when a person checks in from court, they check in, you have their demographic information before you, so that gives you an idea of who is sitting in front of you. So most of these people keep in mind they come from poverty stricken areas. Some people, they haven’t graduated the eighth grade, some people didn’t graduate high school. And you get to know the person that you’re sitting in front of. I was the type of officer, once I got a person in my office out of court and instructed them, we always read every probation condition to them. You can’t leave the state without permission. You must refrain from any substance abuse, any drug use. Can’t carry a firearm. Can’t be around people that have felony records. So all of these conditions you read off to them. But I will always tell my people that I see you as a human. I treat you as a human. And the thing about it, like I said with the demographic information, you can pretty much sum up to say who understands you and who doesn’t understand you. I took all that into consideration because what one has to remember is people have escaped the prison sentence. They’ve escaped the prison sentence by not going to jail or prison and your crime, you have to get so many points. They score you out in prison, some of the crimes, it all depends on the points that you got to score you out. So that’s what one has to keep in mind. And what people don’t realize when you give these people these opportunities, they’re just so happy that they got this opportunity today and say that they understand when some of them really truly don’t understand what has transpired and once they sign that paperwork that is your leverage to use against them, if they, you know, violated any terms to the conditions, I call it a legal agreement that you have entered in.

Donovan: Yeah. Now when you say score out, what do you mean?

LaTonya Tate: All crimes carry points, which means robbery is a violent crime in Alabama. That’s automatically you going to prison. So I would probably say a robbery would carry, I’m just hypothetically saying 80 points and that scores you into prison. They use this scoring system just like you may use a scoring system to see how strong you are. Like you’re doing some type of physical therapy, you may have these points if you like 20 or 30 or what have we, the ranges that you are trying to achieve. So certain crimes carry points and the more points you add up is the scores you enter prison, you’ve reached 60 points, so if you committed several crimes and they add up to like 60 points, that means that you’re going to prison.

Josie: Right.

Donovan: And then to score out that there are factors while you’re actually incarcerated that can reduce that number of points that they make a strong case for why you should be released?

LaTonya Tate: Well not necessarily score out. A lot of people when they do go to prison, a lot of them filed what they call Rule 32 post convictions, which they’re trying to get back in front of the judge and have their sentence either reduced from what they were originally sentenced to. So that’s what you see when you see a lot of things going on with post convictions where people are trying to, cause once you’re sentenced, that settles it. So the only thing that you can do at the time is try to appeal or do what we call post convictions, which are Rule 32s.

Josie: Got it. So I want to in a second get into this new project and how it was built out of these dual experiences. But I would like to hear more about what the experience was like or is like as a parent watching your child in this sort of probation parole system, knowing that one small thing can send him back. I know that you were saying in 2013 he went back on a technical violation. I have a son, he’s a baby. But I could just imagine that that is just such a heartbreaking experience. And so anxiety ridden to be worried about not your son actually violating the law, but violating a technical rule that doesn’t have any sort of meaning really.

LaTonya Tate: Right. And it’s really scary because my son in 2001 was sentenced to a 20 year prison sentence. So we’re here almost 20 years later, which is 2021 when he comes off parole. So we, you know, even coming out of prison from the first technical violation in 2013, my son was out six months where he had suffered some post-incarceration issues being incarcerated because in our state, in Alabama, we have a lot of drug problems in our prison. A lot of people are strung out on drugs and my son had gotten into prison and got caught up in that situation and had I not been trained or had the knowledge that I have to know it was something going on with him, I would have been blindsided. But even coming out and being paroled from the technical violation from 2013, cause he was sent back and he had to serve three years, and then go back up for parole and he paroled out. But you know, being out six months later we’re right back on another technical violation. So he went back to prison a second time on a 45 day, what they call a dunk in Alabama, we have a bill called Senate Bill 267 which they passed in 2015, those that are coming out on probation and parole if their, you know, if the officer having any issues out of them they can dip them for three days in a county jail, 72 hours. And then if they continue to violate conditions or parole, then the officer can dunk them, which means they go back to prison for 45 days. So my son was dipped for 72 hours and then he was dunked for 45 days, which means he had to go back and serve 45 days in prison. So that really did not sit well with me. And having this project, it really just made me focus that I got to really, really push some bold parole reform, you know, in Alabama, because it’s not just my son it is millions of people that if they do the littlest thing to violate one of their conditions of their probation or parole, the officers could put them back in jail because they have that authority to do so. So it’s a scary time, a scary moment. I’m always having anxiety molds and you know, just, it’s a situation where you really gotta just trust your faith and just believe that, you know, my son is 37 years old now, so we are talking about 19 to 37. So it’s situations and times when I talk to him and we have this conversation, you know, hey you still an African American male on parole so I constantly remind him, you know, to be careful, be mindful of your surroundings. You know, now he has a job, he has a car, he’s doing exceptionally well, he’s gotten married. But that fear is still there. 

Josie: Right.

LaTonya Tate: So I’ve made my presence, you know, with the local parole people and his officer and I’ve raised these issues, not just for my son, but just for those like my son, those others that are like my son that are on probation and parole. You know, we gotta re-imagine probation and parole. I had lunch with the DA about three weeks ago. And you know, I was talking to him, how do we reimagine all of these? So we have our first African American DA and he’s on board. Let’s reimagine taking so many people off long term supervision. So, you know, I’m excited about that. But again, the fear is always there.

Josie: Right

Donovan: Yeah. I mean, you know, you talk about reimagining, but hearing that anxiety in your voice, it, I can’t help but just feel like, or at least to wonder why we need the system at all? There are so many things in our criminal justice system that just exist because they’ve always existed. But is there a solid rationale for supervising people after we’ve already given them time in prison? Why is this an important element of our system?

LaTonya Tate: You gotta think about where we are. We’re in Alabama and other states and it’s the sentencing, the sentencing that is attached to these crimes, in my opinion are very unfair sentences. And when these individuals have served so much time in prison, I don’t understand why you still have to have probation or parole even attached to further traumatize individuals? You’ve caged people for 10 and 15 or 20 years and you’ve given people life sentences. And we have people in Alabama that are out, that are on lifetime parole. So when I say reimagine probation and parole, I want to be able to get with legislators and lawmakers and see how we can disconnect one’s prison sentence away from probation and parole. If you have to put a person on probation and parole, why drag them out? My son got a 20 year prison sentence, I’m gonna use that example again, and he doesn’t get off to 2021. So that’s unimaginable. I mean, why are we still here? Why is it we don’t have any compliance credits where they can earn their way off? We have rules to punish people, but we don’t have rules where people can earn their way off of this mass supervision. So that’s some things that I have been pitching, you know, out there, we gotta reimagine, we got to change how we look at people. And especially in the state Alabama, we are behind on things, we got so many issues going on over here and it’s almost like whatever you do, it’s almost like the leadership is definitely not trying to lead in a progressive way. So that’s my take on that. 

Josie: Yeah.

Donovan: If I can throw in my two cents, I mean it seems to me that it kind of goes back to this basic psychology in our society around who’s dangerous, who’s not. And I mean, you know, Michelle Alexander put it great when she talked about our criminal justice system as a system of social control. So we’ve decided that people have served, I guess 20 years is what some folks think is a reasonable sentence for someone accused of, of robbery, but then the idea is that this is somebody that we need to still control in a long term way. 

Josie: Right.

Donovan:  And not just when it comes to potential criminal behavior, but when it comes to basic things like who they associate with or you know, what activities they engage in. And that to me seems to be a really just basic overreach of the government.

LaTonya Tate: I agree. I mean, being on probation, being on parole, you can’t leave the state without permission. You can’t move without permission. You can’t associate with people that have criminal histories. That’s pretty much everybody. Every corner you turn somebody is going to have a criminal history. Your family members, I mean, you can’t get housing, you can’t get education. I mean it’s a form of control like you said of the government. At what point do we stop this? We have to go back and look at the people that have been in power. The three strikes you out, Bill Clinton was responsible for that. And then we have the Habitual Offender Act here where we have thousands of individuals sitting in Alabama prison that are sentenced with life with no parole and I know you guys probably saw the story of the guy who was sent to prison at 22 and was sitting in there for a $50 robbery. No victims have been in prison 36 years. So we thank god for somebody like Judge Carpenter who happened to see the case come across his desk and really wanted to dig in and look into it and gave the guy time served. And even giving him time served, the prison system still wanted him to come back. I’m like, are you kidding me? So these are the things that, you know, and what Donovan said, just total control of the government. At what point do we stop this madness?

Josie: Right.

LaTonya Tate: You’ve inflicted all this trauma. So you would think that those that have created and have subjected communities to this trauma, to this mass incarceration, to this war on drugs, you would think that they will come back and, and want to clean this up.

Josie: Right. So can you talk about both your organization and your project and how they’re attempting to address sort of the institutional failures that we’ve been talking about on the show?

LaTonya Tate: Well my project is probation and parole practices, so I’m definitely driving that initiative real hard. Just really dig in deep, sitting at the table with the powers that be, doing a lot of research and seeing what other states are doing. Pulling research and seeing, I pulled some research in from South Carolina, I pulled some in from Missouri, I pulled in some research in from New Mexico. Just a lot of things. Just seeing how others are moving progressively when it comes to probation and parole. And New York also because they have the Less Is More Act that they’re introducing and then just collaborating with those that are pushing for parole reform. And what that looks like is just trying to get some real bold reform passed in Alabama, which one of the things that I’m really pushing is earn compliant credits. If you do good every 30 days that you’re on supervision and you follow the rules, they knock 30 days off. So that looks like shaving time off their prison sentence so that will knock their prison that’s attached to your parole off even sooner. We are pushing for elderly parole and also youthful offender parole and even earn compliant credits for those that come out and go to school and take substance abuse courses and complete NA, AA. And what that looks like for Alabama Justice Initiative is, when I birthed this organization, I kinda studied all of the grassroots organizations that were in the Birmingham, Jefferson County area and a lot of people are doing what they call peer support. They’re doing reentry, which means helping people with housing and, and clothing and all of this. So I did not want to do that because I had done all of that when I was in Florida. So I said, okay, we are pushing all of this reentry, which is very good, but who’s pushing policy and advocacy work? So Alabama Justice Initiative is a policy driven organization, advocacy driven organization. And like I said, we are doing the probation and parole initiative. I’ve also launched another initiative, participatory defense. And I’ve also launched the reimagined justice fellowship opportunity for directly impacted formerly incarcerated and community members to get them trained up in the political process, the advocacy process and to show them that the power lies in us. So that’s the goal for Alabama Justice Initiative is to try policy and advocacy and train up community leaders to lead this work and be advocates and learn how to go to the state house during lobby days and lobby for things that you want to see change in your community. So that’s the lead that I’m taking with the organization. 

Josie: Can you talk a little bit about the participatory defense part of it? 

LaTonya Tate: What a participatory defense part is a community based piece where in that piece is you link up with individuals that have been charged with a crime and you show them how to get involved with their case. And what that looks like is coming to a hub that we have on a weekly basis. We’re relaunching a hub and that looks like coming to the hub sessions telling us about your case and, you know, telling you what you need to do to be involved in your case. And we have volunteers that will go to court to show court support and we do social bios and we’ve used participatory defense. We’ve gotten four people out of prison. And what that looked like was we did social bios, we presented them to our parole board members because in Alabama, those that are incarcerated cannot appear at their parole hearings nor are they video conferenced in so we’ve presented bios and had the opportunity to speak on their behalf. And everybody that we spoke on their behalf is out of prison now. We had one person that served 19 years on a felony murder. We just won a parole hearing of a guy that had a murder charge after being in prison 21 years and a robbery and one that had been sentenced to prison for drugs. So that’s what participatory looks like. Getting the community involved. It’s a community movement is what it is. You get the community engaged, you support these people in their court effort and you show up in the courtroom to show the judge or the DA, paint a picture that these people are not throw away. And then we present the bios to the judge and give the judge an opportunity to see who this person really is versus what they are saying who they are. 

Josie: They can’t show up to their own parole hearings? They can’t be in their own-?

LaTonya Tate: No.

Josie: Oh my gosh. 

LaTonya Tate: No ma’am. So that’s another part of the project that we’re trying to push as well is for Alabama Department of Corrections and pardon and parole to do video conferencing where those individuals that are coming up for parole hearings, that they’re able to appear by video conference. So that’s a part of my project as well. 

Josie: Oh man, I didn’t even know that. 

Donovan: Yeah. I mean, all of that, the fight for reform around something like probation and parole is so hard, so tough, so long. What keeps you engaged in it? 

LaTonya Tate: What keeps me engaged is what just happened this summer. In August, our governor appointed a former judge,  his name is Judge Charlie Graddick, to be the executive director of the parole board. And he took leadership in September. He halted over a hundred parole hearings, so people that were on the docket to go up for parole in October, their parole hearings have been canceled. And the reason he canceled those hearings was because he said he did not trust the prior administration to notify the victim. So things like that keep me engaged and to know that it’s just no way that I could drop out of this or end this and keep mobilizing families and family members and those that are directly impacted and those that have interest in this, that we all got to come together collectively and do something about what is transpiring. So these are the types of things that keep me engaged. When you pass a bill back in May, House Bill 380 that gave the governor control and now it puts those that commit violent offenses, Class A felonies like murder, robbery, rape to do 15 years in prison or 85 percent of their time before they are even looked at for parole. That’s what keeps me engaged in this fight.

Donovan: Yeah. 

Josie: Can you talk just briefly about obstacles that you’ve had to face doing this project, and I just heard one obviously, which is the governor’s decision, but other examples, whether it’s people or bureaucracy or pushback you’re getting, what are some of the obstacles that you’ve had to face in Alabama trying to reform the system? 

LaTonya Tate: What are obstacles that one faces and what I’m facing is we got to think about, we are in a conservative state and our house is a super majority Republicans, so that obstacle looks like a lot of those people that hold power. A lot of those individuals don’t want to talk about criminal justice reform. They don’t want to talk about prison reform. Their constituents don’t want to hear anything about prison reform. So these are the obstacles that you face. You face the, the victim advocate groups going to the parole hearings, testifying against the people why they shouldn’t make parole. And that’s a false narrative. You’re still judging people on who they were when they went into the system. But nobody’s judging these people on who they are today. So the challenge here is to change the false narrative, is to get more stories, get more family members, more directly impacted people to tell their stories and to visit the legislation, the legislators, to visit your district leaders and have these town hall discussions with them, call them out, call them out in town hall discussions and, and their constituents so they can hear, really hear the truth. You know, what is really, really transpiring because I’m really, I’m a proponent for restorative justice and I just really believe that, you know, being in Alabama and being here, it’s time for healing to take place. So a false narrative is continually being pushed out and challenging that, you know, changing that tone and the barriers that we face is we are facing constituents and those that do not want to talk about criminal justice reform. And I just think we are in a time and a place where we have no other opportunity. I mean we got to talk about this, the time is now, you know, we got a DoJ report this hour. He is saying our prisons are inhumane, unlivable. So when do we talk about this? I just think the time is now.

Donovan: LaTonya, I would love to know as a former parole and probation officer, as a mother, what do you wish you knew about the system those years back when your son first entered the criminal justice system?

LaTonya Tate: Wooph. I just wish, you know, before entering this system that I would have been just more engaged. I always wanted to do public service work, but I always wanted to be in the medical field. And, you know, as I go back in my mind and a lot of my friends, some wanted to be police officers, some wanted to go into law and sometimes I just questioned myself, did I make the wrong move or I just think I probably should have been more up on the criminal process or what is a felony or how does one go to jail? What constitutes one to go to prison? I think I, I should have been paying attention or, or been more inclined to know that end of the criminal justice system versus how well I know it now. So that’s the only regret that I do have is I wished I had been paying more attention and gotten to know, you know, the system better back then than how I know it now.

Donovan: Yeah. And as a final question, how should people get involved both in Alabama but also nationally?

LaTonya Tate: Those that are directly impacted, formally incarcerated people, the community people, we cannot turn a blind eye to what is transpiring. We have a major problem in the United States with mass incarceration and mass supervision and the only way it is going to change is we got to take our power back. That’s just like in, you know, here in Alabama the people have been stripped of their power because the powers that be have been pushing this false narrative today have really made the people feel like there is nothing that you can do. Once we break these laws, there is nothing that you can do. So what we’re doing and what we’re doing to mobilize and to change that is we are partnering with people like the Southern Poverty Law Center, the ACLU, grassroots organizations. We are coming together to form coalitions, we are partnering with faith-based communities, we are making sure our voices are leading this conversation. Every chance we get. Nothing without us. You know, you cannot continue to do things about us without us. So what that looks like is I just encourage everybody and if you want to see change, the only way things are going to change in your communities is we got to go back to, I call them the golden days, where the communities were close knit. I knew what you did. Your mother knew what I was doing. We got to take it back to those roots. And that’s the only way we’re going to be able to save and protect our communities. We got to get involved. We can no longer continue to let these bad policies and these practices harm our communities. 

Donovan: Yeah. I think that that is absolutely right and I couldn’t have said it better myself. 

Josie: Yeah. I thank you so much for talking to us today LaTonya. This is just, the work you’re doing is so, so, so critical and important and we’re just so glad to have you on the show. 

LaTonya Tate: Thank you. I appreciate it.

Josie: Thanks again to our guests LaTonya Tate. It was wonderful to hear about her advocacy and her work in Alabama. We’re so grateful she joined us. For show notes, please visit and don’t forget to check out LaTonya’s book bonus as well. You can find it wherever you listen to podcasts or on 

Donovan: Thank you for listening to Justice in America. I’m Donovan Ramsey. 

Josie: I’m Josie Duffy rice. 

Donovan: You can find us on Twitter @Justice_Podcast, like our Facebook page at Justice in America and subscribe and rate us on Apple Podcasts.

Josie: Justice in America is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. The production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Research Assistant Nawal Arjini. And our location recording was by Andrew Yeager. Thank you so much everyone for listening. We’ll catch you next time.



LaTonya Tate’s Book Recommendation:

Josie: Hi, I’m Josie Duffy Rice and this is the Justice In America book bonus. Here’s LaTonya Tate, she’s the Executive Director and Founder of Alabama Justice Initiative, which is based in Birmingham, Alabama.

Can you tell us something that you might have read recently or watch recently that you find to be inspiring or has influenced the way that you’re thinking about the criminal justice system?

LaTonya:  The one thing that I can say that I am beginning to read is Bryan Stevenson book Just Mercy, I just had an opportunity to see him at the Alabama Appleseed fundraiser. So inspirational. But the one thing that I can say that I watch this driving me is When They See Us, so watching it and get an opportunity to meet Yusef Salaam at the Soros Justice Conference. This drives me, it makes me want to run even harder than where I’m running. 

Josie: Great. Thank you so much LaTonya, we’re so grateful

LaTonya: Thank y’all. Have a good one.