by Max Brantley
The Department of Community Correction isn't always getting the job done on communication and rapid response on parole violators and repeat offenders.
Also, anybody can produce a litany of new crimes committed by not only parole violators but parolees who are NOT yet in violation of parole terms.
It sounds from Tweets from the event that some are getting at the core issue. Parole is a safety valve on prison population, as well as an incentive for better behavior by convicts. It will be relatively easy to crack down if we think parole is broken. Fewer parole options. Longer sentences. Summary return to prison for the smallest violation. And so on.
Then comes the multi-million-dollar question: How do we pay for the operation of more prison beds?
Update on the jump. Lots of comment from a meeting that stretched from 10 a.m. into the afternoon.
By Leslie Newell Peacock
The general public doesn't understand what parole means, prosecutors told legislators at this morning's extended hearing by the Joint Performance Review Committee on Arkansas's parole system triggered by the arrest of parole violator Darrell Dennis for the May murder of a teen-ager.
Their bottom line: Arkansas needs to lock up more people, and because that will cost money, a shift in state priorities in spending is in order. Prosecutors also took to task Act 570, the Public Safety Improvement Act passed in 2011 crafted to ease prison crowding by shortening sentences for property and drug crimes, and and the Technical Violators Program.
Ken Casady, Saline County prosecuting attorney, said the public believes that if a parolee "messes up and gets another felony [he] goes back to prison [to complete his sentence.] That's not really the case." Instead, he said, if they go back to prison, it's for six months or a year — not, for example, to complete a six-year sentence that allowed for parole after one year.
"We have to stop treating [felons] like 'clients,' and treat them as recidivists," Casady said. That means putting more people in prison; "prosecutors hope the legislature will deal with that accordingly."
Casady's reference to "clients" stems from DCC spokesperson Rhonda Sharp, who was quoted in the Log Cabin Democrat as saying, "Our client base is not made up of bad people, just people who make bad decisions.”
Marc McCune, the Crawford County prosecutor, told the committee that prosecutors have no way of knowing what happens to offenders when they are on parole and said a better system of communication between prosecutors and parole and probation officers is needed. Faulkner County prosecutor Cody Hiland said prosecutors are tired of the "catch and release" parole system. "Evil exists. I see it every day," Hiland said, recounting a parolee's murder of his girlfriend by slashing her neck.
In sharp remarks to DCC representatives, including interim Director Sheila Sharp, Rep. David Sanders took issue with spokesman Rhonda Sharp's emailed response to a Democrat-Gazette reporter that "The DCC's goal is to help people reintegrate into society and we do that by addressing needs and providing guidance."
He was also offended by a quote at at the bottom of another e-mail written by Rhonda Sharp: " 'None of us, including those accused of a crime, wants to be defined by the worst moment, or the worst day of our lives.' Attorney Judy Clarke." Clarke, Sanders said, was the lawyer for the Unabomber and other high-profile criminals.
Sanders also expressed skepticism that new policies put in place by the parole board — including a 2nd absconder offense triggering a revocation hearing — since Dennis' arrest will be followed.
DCC has "philosophical problems," Sanders said; its "philosophy is off." He asked Sheila Sharp if DCC had any concern for public safety. "Public safety is our primary concern," she said. "I hope you'll give us a little bit of time" to work out whatever problems exist in the system, she told him.
The committee also voted to take the unprecedented step of going to court to require DCC to provide the committee parole/probation supervision files on murder suspect Dennis. It's against state law (A.C.A. Sec. 12-27-125) to release such information, but DCC has agreed to release it if ordered by a court.
The information is to remain confidential, though it will be discussed openly in committee, a fact that disturbed Sen. Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff) because of the potential to jeopardize Dennis' ability to defend himself and the prosecutors' ability to prosecute. "Where are we going with something that has not been litigated?" she asked.
Sen. Jane English, chair of Joint Performance Review, said she believed the committee could review discuss the records without revealing confidential information.