Lawmakers in Arkansas have already acknowledged the unsustainable course of mass incarceration. In recent legislative sessions, laws were passed that slowed the spiraling growth of the state’s prison inmate population. In many instances the policy shifts manifest as the diversion of otherwise imprisoned individuals into the state’s parole and probation system. This would be all well and good save for the fact that this system is also dogged by serious problems.
It’s not that problems in the Department of Community Corrections weren’t known. It’s that nothing had happened to propel them into the headlines — until this June. In June is when DCC revoked the parole of Darrell Dennis, who was arrested more than two dozen times after being released on parole in 2008 without having his parole revoked. Dennis 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 His parole was revoked on June 5.
In July Gov. Mike Beebe asked the Arkansas State Police to investigate the circumstances surrounding Dennis’ seeming evasion of penalties despite multiple arrests while on parole.
This week Beebe held a press conference at the state Capitol to announce the results of the ASP investigation. “While finding no criminal activity, this investigation detailed individual and systemic problems within our parole system, particularly in Pulaski County,” he told reporters. “While corrective actions have already been taken to address these problems, our work is not over yet. 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.”
In response, various governmental actors are attempting policy changes to address the systemic failures at DCC. On Tuesday, several new policies and procedures regarding parolees who chronically violate their sentences were presented to a legislative committee. While the changes were well-received by some lawmakers, others urged caution and external review.
According to an Arkansas News Bureau report, one of the policy changes under consideration would require any parolee who has been issued three or more evading supervision warrants to be jailed until his or her next hearing. The policy also stipulates a parolee has evaded supervision if he or she cannot be located for 30 days.
Another policy recommendation would require an automatic revocation hearing for a parolee who cannot be located within 180 days.
While these policy changes have an admitted face validity, their enactment may hold other unforeseen latent consequences. As such, some members of the legislative committee have called for external review by corrections policy experts.
Sheila Sharp, director of the state Department of Community Correction, told lawmakers that the recommendations were based on input from parole officers, who Sharp characterized as “the true experts.”
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, balked at the notion that the same officers who were found by ASP to need additional training and education could be relied upon as policy experts. “Since they need more training then maybe they haven’t had enough training. Therefore, I don’t know how people who are not performing well can be regarded as experts,” Walker said.
We don’t either. Throughout its history, corrections in Arkansas have too often been run under a provincial and insular cloak. In many regards that has changed, but events propelling the ASP investigation and the subsequent legislative committee meeting suggest there is much work yet to be done.