LITTLE ROCK — A state police investigation found “systemic problems” but no criminal wrongdoing in parole officials’ handling of the case of a parolee accused of murdering a teenager while free despite multiple arrests, Gov. Mike Beebe said Monday.
“While finding no criminal activity, this investigation detailed individual and systemic problems within our parole system, particularly in Pulaski County,” Beebe said during a news conference at the state Capitol.
“While corrective actions have already been taken to address these problems, out work is not over yet,” the governor said. “It is always difficult to strike a balance between taking proper actions against those who violate their terms of parole while working to avoid overcrowding in our jails and prisons.”
After the news conference, Benny Magness, chairman of the state Board of Corrections, said the board is expected to meet soon, possibly later this week, to finalize rules that would allow some parolees who are back in jail waiting for hearings to be issued electronic monitoring devices. The proposed rules stipulate that the parolees must be nonviolent offenders.
Beebe asked the state police in July to investigate the circumstances surrounding Darrell Dennis, who was arrested more than two dozen times after being released on parole in 2008 without having his parole revoked.
He was last released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8, and less than two days later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found shot to death at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked on June 5.
The state Department of Community Correction has been under heavy scrutiny ever since. In August, the Department of Correction released findings of its investigation that concluded that a number of factors contributed to the breakdown in procedures in Dennis’ case, including jail overcrowding, but found no wrongdoing.
In July, the state Board of Corrections approved a series of new mandates to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. One of the new mandates prohibits parole officers from letting jailed parolees back on the street if a mental health evaluation is pending.
One of the drawbacks to the new policies, the governor admitted, has been a jump in the number of inmates being in county jails. There were more than 2,200 inmates in county jails waiting prison beds, he said.
Magness and Sheila Sharp, director of the state Department of Community Corrections, both said Monday that plans are in the works to expand the use of electronic monitoring to non-violent parolees in custody awaiting hearings. They said the state Board of Corrections is to consider policy changes later this month, and 300 or more parolees could be wearing electronic monitoring devices soon after.
Because of the jail backup, Beebe also said he expects the Legislature during its February fiscal session to be asked to appropriate money for additional prison beds, and to pay county jails for their space.
“We’re going to have open new beds, we’re going to have to pay the counties a lot of money. There’s a huge monetary impact that the Legislature is going to have to address in February,” Beebe said.
“There is just no way around it. You can’t have 2,200 more folks backed up in county jails, needing more beds, without creating a financial responsibility and public safety that has to be addressed,” he said.
Magness and Sharp told reporters the department has about 446 new beds ready for use when about $8 million in funding is available. Also, the old department diagnostic unit in Pine Bluff could be refurbished to house 550 inmates at a cost of at least $16 million.
They also said they will need $6 million to $7 million to pay counties for use of their jails for the rest of he fiscal year.
“Public safety comes first,” Beebe said during the news conference. “Bad guys have to go to jail and we all know we’ve got to pay for it. It’s not free.”