LITTLE ROCK — The state Board of Corrections named a new director of the state Department of Community Correction Monday, just hours after the agency’s embattled former director retired amid a review of DCC’s handling of a parolee accused of committing murder while free despite multiple arrests.
At an emergency meeting, the prison board named Sheila Sharp, a 15-year veteran of the state prison system, to replace former DCC Director David Eberhard. She will take over July 8.
The Department of Community Punishment announced Eberhard’s retirement, which was effective Monday. The department said Eberhard told prison board Chairman Benny Magness on June 21 of his intention to retire.
Eberhard’s departure comes just weeks after Gov. Mike Beebe ordered a review of the agency’s policies and procedures following revelations that Darrell Dennis, a capital murder suspect, had been arrested multiple times while on parole.
Sharp, a 36-year veteran of state government, after Monday’s board meeting she had not yet read any of the reports on the investigation of why Dennis had been released.
“I’ll get into that and … if there are any problems or incidents we need to solve, we’ll solve them,” she said.
In nominating Sharp for director, board member Mary Parker said Sharp “has the experience to hit the ground running, and with such a critical time for the agency we need her now.”
Magness said Sharp was a top contender for the position in 2010 and that after much discussion the board chose Eberhard.
“It was a very close vote,” he said. “She is very competent.”
State police investigators are looking into the state’s handling of Dennis, 47, who is charged with kidnapping and capital murder in the May 10 killing of 18-year-old Forrest Abrams. Released on parole in 2008 after serving time for aggravated robbery, Dennis was arrested more than two dozen times, including arrests for absconding parole and several felonies, without having his parole revoked.
Also Monday, the prison board voted to prohibit the release of any parole violators taken into custody for new crimes or violations and who are waiting for a court-ordered mental health evaluation.
Last week, the board approved a series of new mandates in an effort to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. The new mandates range from improved documentation to keeping parolees in jail if they are charged with felonies, violence or sex-related misdemeanors, to jailing parolees who fail to show up for meetings or hearings more than once.
Magness said Monday that parole officers previously had the discretion of letting jailed parolees back on the streets if a mental health evaluation was pending.
“In the future, we’re not going to release a person that has been deemed by court as a possible mentally incompetent person,” Magness said. “We’re not going to release him.”
The board on Monday spent more than two hours in executive session being updated on the on-going investigation into how Dennis managed to be released. Magness said later one thing the board learned was that he had a mental health evaluation pending.
“The only policy (before) was that the Parole Board could not do revocation,” he said. “We could have always held them or not held them, that was up to the staff, like many other cases. Now (staff) won’t have a choice.”
Sharp acknowledged Monday that she was taking the job of DCC director during a “difficult time” and that her job will be “working to solve problems.”
“I want to give (DCC employees) the tools to do their job, work to have a good relationship with all the law enforcement folks out in the community, the sheriffs, judges, prosecutors, and the Legislature,” she said. “They’re the ones out there making the law that we have to follow … you have to have good communication with that whole community, that will be my focus.”
Before going to work for the Department of Correction, she worked for the state Department of Finance and Administration and the state Department of Parks and Tourism.
Gov. Mike Beebe summoned Eberhard to his office shortly after Dennis’ case came to light, but Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said at the time the governor did not ask the director to step down.
Asked Monday if Beebe knew Eberhard had informed the Board of Corrections of his decision to retire, DeCample said, “We knew that discussion had taken place.” He would not say if the governor expects the departure of other DCC officials as a result of the Dennis probe.
“We’re going to wait to see what the results of these investigations are before we make that kind of declaration,” he said. “The governor has influence over DCC just like any other state agency of the executive branch, but they do have a separate board that serves as the agency’s immediate supervisor.”
Eberhard retires with more than 28 years of service in Arkansas government. Before becoming DCC director, he served as a judicial law clerk, an assistant attorney general, a deputy attorney general and general counsel for the DCC.