LITTLE ROCK — State lawmakers Thursday voted to seek a court order to get more information about Darrell Dennis, a parolee accused of committing murder while free despite multiple arrests.
The Joint Performance Review Committee voted to seek the court order after a legislative researcher told members that state law prohibits the Department of Community Correction from providing Dennis’ file, which includes his arrest record, to the panel.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, and Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, both asked whether acquiring the case file would jeopardize any criminal investigation or prosecution of Dennis.
Prosecutor Cody Hiland of Conway, one of several prosecutors to attended the meeting, told the committee he doubted releasing the information would diminish Dennis’ chance to get a fair trial.
“If it tainted the jury pool to the extent that the people in that jury pool said that ‘I cannot render a fair judgment because I think he’s already guilty based on information there, based on information in the media and other places,’ then yes, but I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Hiland said.
The prosecutor said he has been involved in a number of high-profile cases that were publicized in the media “and I think we overestimate sometimes the level of attention that people pay to media stories and we didn’t have any trouble whatsoever in getting a jury.”
The committee met Thursday to discuss the parole process, in addition to three investigations under way into the DCC’s handling of Dennis.
The state Board of Corrections is examining what happened, Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided.
“We’re not here to talk about Darrell Dennis,” Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, a committee co-chairman, said during the meeting. “We’re here to talk about the parole process.”
After being released on parole in 2008 after serving time for aggravated robbery, Dennis was arrested more than two dozen times, including arrests for absconding and several felonies, without having his parole revoked.
He was released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8 after parole officers decided not to ask that his parole be revoked, telling him he would be sent to a technical violators center in Malvern. 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.
During Thursday’s meeting, DCC officials briefed lawmakers on the parole and probation process . Several prosecutors said changes are needed so dangerous felons remain behind bars.
Crawford County Prosecutor Marc McCune said people don’t realize that someone sentenced to prison actually spends just one-fourth or one-sixth of their time behind bars. The rest of the time they are on parole, he said.
McCune said there is little communication between prosecutors and the parole office.
“When someone is out on parole, we don’t know if they are reporting to that parole officer, we don’t if they are testing positive for drugs while out on parole, we don’t know if they are getting arrested in other jurisdictions,” he said. “Parole doesn’t communicate with us and let us know that.”
He call for simplification of the system, adding, “As an attorney and a prosecutor, I come away confused reading those statutes.”
Sheila Sharp, interim director of DCC, acknowledged to lawmakers a need for better communication between parole officers and prosecutors. A system can be developed similar to the one now being used between law enforcement and parole personnel, she said.
Sharp said the DCC’s purpose is defined by state statute. She noted that two years ago, the Legislature approved and Beebe signed into law Act 570, which changed the role of the agency. The new law was designed to reform parole guidelines, reduce the number of low-risk offenders in the state prison system and ease prison overcrowding.
“Act 570 is an enormous piece of legislation and it touched all areas of our operation,” she said. “The traditional specialized role of probation officers has taken on the additional role as counselor and they are trained not only to police these offenders but also to motivate them to become law-abiding citizens.”
The committee meets again Aug. 1 to further discuss the parole system and possible changes.