From David Koon, a report on a glitch in a plan to put a circuit court probation program near an elementary school in the East End.:
The done-deal to sell the old Carver Elementary School to do-gooder group Cycle Breakers might not be so done. Due to a number of factors — mostly the outcry from parents of children who attend nearby Carver Magnet Elementary — Little Rock City Director Gene Fortson plans to make a motion at this Tuesday's city board meeting to rescind the board's approval of the sale. A vote to rescind would immediately throw the motion to approve the sale back into a third reading by the board, and lead to almost certain defeat. Without the City Board's approval, the deal could not go through.
Cycle Breakers, Inc. is the capital investment arm of Cycle Breakers, the probation program run out of Circuit Judge Willard Proctor's court. Under the program, probationers are required to attend monthly, weekly or even daily classes on mental and physical health and life skills. Though the program is technically free, those who miss a meeting are fined $100 per missed meeting. Probationers also pay the court between $35 and $40 per month in probation fees. Under an order signed by Judge Proctor signed last year, $70,000 of the court's probation funds each year are turned over to the program. Proctor's is the only court in Little Rock that participates in Cycle Breakers.
The Little Rock School District plans to sell the old Carver Elementary, at Eighth and Apperson Streets, to Cycle Breakers, Inc. for $300,000. Local residents and parents of Carver Magnet students say having a Cycle Breakers center there would bring convicted felons into the area. The old Carver is a little over two blocks from Carver Magnet. Currently, Cycle Breakers programs are held at a number of locations in other parts of the city. With the purchase of the old Carver Elementary building, Proctor plans to consolidate the programs in one location, including providing bed space for probationers sentenced to residential treatment.
When the city board voted in late January to approve the sale of the old Carver building to Cycle Breakers, Inc., the vote was 3-7, with Mayor Mark Stodola, and Directors Stacy Hurst and B.J. Wyrick opposed. Fortson voted in favor of the sale then, but said he has since changed his mind after finding out the probationers currently sentenced to Cycle Breakers programs include a number of registered sex offenders. Fortson said that he also learned that around 25 percent of the children attending Carver Magnet are residents of the area, with many walking home past the old Carver building.
Proctor said that members of the City Board had ample time to object to the plan, and calls it "strange" that a motion to rescind approval would be made now. "I hope they don't do that," Proctor said. "I think it's unfortunate. It looks like Cycle Breakers did everything they were supposed to do. They followed the process, they did the procedures... there isn't really anything new that's come up. The school issue -- the planning commission and the board knew about that. The school [Carver Magnet] didn't just pop up out of the blue. It's been there all the time."
Proctor said there are currently 1,252 probationers sentenced to the Cycle Breakers program. Of those, 441 are on probation for drug offenses, 454 for theft, and 25 for sex offenses. The rest, Proctor said, are on probation for "a hodgepodge of other crimes" including domestic battery.
"Judge Proctor points out persuasively that most of his activities occur at night, that they’ve never had any problem with Cycle Breakers," Fortson said. "But they’ve never had all 1,200 of their probationers meeting at one location. They’re all over the city right now."
While Fortson said Cycle Breakers seems to be a worthy program, he said it's the potential concentration of large numbers of convicted probationers in one place that makes residents nervous. He adds that the push to buy the building by Cycle Breakers, Inc. brings up other questions about the program. "Does it all need to be in one location? Do they need to own a building? Do they need to invest probation funds in a capital investment like this? Could they continue to do just as well as they have in scattered locations, with smaller groups, which are more controllable and more secure?" Fortson asked, "I don’t know. I’m not a criminologist, I don’t understand what works best."
Proctor said he hopes the deal will be allowed to go through, so Cycle Breakers will get a chance to prove itself to the community.
Fortson said Proctor makes a point when he says that the city is home to thousands of probationers — though, with most, you'd never know it. "You might run into them in the grocery store," Fortson said. "They don’t wear a sign that says, 'I’m on probation as a convicted armed robber.' I just think there’s a lot of public concern when you start congregating significant numbers of convicted criminals in one place."
Tuesday's city board meeting will begin at 4 p.m., in the second floor chamber of City Hall. "If you come," Fortson said, chuckling, "you might want to bring your lunch."