LITTLE ROCK — Legislative critics expressed more displeasure with the state’s parole system Wednesday in the wake of a parolee being charged with committing murder while free despite multiple felony arrests.
But one lawmaker cautioned that keeping prisoners behind bars indefinitely is not the answer.
Members spent part of Wednesday’s joint meeting of the House and Senate judiciary committees discussing 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. 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 His parole was revoked on June 5.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 since. The state Board of Corrections is examining what happened, Gov. Mike Beebe has ordered an internal DCC investigation and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how such a breakdown might be avoided in the future.
Wednesday’s meeting was at least the fourth in the past three weeks in which lawmakers have vented their frustrations with the system while questioning interim DCC Director Sheila Sharp and other prison and parole officials.
During the meeting, lawmakers suggested they and the public have begun losing faith in the DCC’s ability to do its job properly.
“There’s a perception out there in the general public we’ve somewhat become soft on crime,” said Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot. “I think we’ve got some work to do to amend that.”
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, told Sharp he was concerned the agency is not following its mission “to protect the safety, but to run the organization and make the books look good.”
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, said the parole system needs to be one with “teeth.”
“It can’t be a system of second, third, fourth and fifth chances,” he said. “And that’s what we have today.”
But Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, urged colleagues to take a wider view of the problem.
“We can sit here and say we need to lock everybody up, but I think we need to think carefully about what we are saying,” said Flowers, whose hometown is home to the state Department of Correction and to one of the largest populations of parolees in the state. “Everybody who commits a crime is not sentenced to life.”
She said one of the systemic problems she has noticed is how many parolees have not had any assistance in planning for life outside prison. Many of those on parole or probation need programs to improve their literacy or help find a job and housing, while others are in dire need of mental health services and have no idea how to find them, she added.
“You’ve got homeless parolees,” Flowers said. “We’re letting people (out of prison who) don’t have a clue in terms of how to support themselves.”
She said that under Act 570 of 2011, the Department of Community Correction was charged with improving such services.
“I haven’t seen enough of that,” said Flowers, a lawyer who said she is often in court with parole and probation violators who have been re-arrested.
Sharp said Wednesday she agreed that the agency should speed implementation of many of the programs required under Act 570, the law designed to reform parole guidelines, reduce the number of low-risk offenders in the state prison system and ease prison overcrowding.
Sharp said she has met with managers of regional parole and probation offices to discuss the need for better communication with local police, deputies and service providers.
She said DCC has about $3 million to distribute among the regions, and the managers have been asked to prepare a list of items and programs they want to implement with a portion of that money.
Sharp said 142 parolees are now wearing electronic ankle bracelets and that as many as 300 could have them later this fall. She said the bracelets will help parole officers keep better track of the parolees.