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Parole and politics

Will another high-profile crime derail parole reform?

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AFTER THE POWER ULTRA LOUNGE SHOOTING: Mayor Mark Stodola (left) predicted that parolees would be among the suspects. Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the shooting "potentially involved gang activity."
  • AFTER THE POWER ULTRA LOUNGE SHOOTING: Mayor Mark Stodola (left) predicted that parolees would be among the suspects. Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner said the shooting "potentially involved gang activity."

In the wake of the July 1 Power Ultra Lounge mass shooting, city and state officials have put parole and probation at the center of law enforcement plans to tackle violent crime in Little Rock and clamp down on what's been described as gang activity.

The shooting, which left 28 injured, provided an international headline amid a rise in shootings and murders that threaten to reach the heights of the infamous "Bangin' in the Rock" gang violence of the 1990s. At a news conference the day of the early morning shooting, Little Rock Police Chief Kenton Buckner conceded that the Power Ultra Lounge shooting "potentially involved gang activity." Mayor Mark Stodola — who, in the 1990s oversaw a "Gang Prosecution Team" as Pulaski County prosecutor — later mentioned another potential group involved in the violence.

"I will predict for you," Stodola said, "we will find out that a lot of the people — both victims and suspects — [in the shooting] have previous criminal records and probably are on probation or parole." The mayor called on state government to provide more assistance dealing with parolees and probationers.

On July 6, Governor Hutchinson announced a task force of state and city officials to stem the violence; among the agencies included was Arkansas Community Correction, which oversees those on parole and probation. "Some of those that are out on parole have ties to gangs in the area," Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said when asked about the ACC's role in the task force. "This is part of a hyper-focus on those who have gang affiliations by the task force."

The ACC has been coordinating with the Little Rock Police Department's Violent Crimes Apprehension Team for several months, according to ACC spokeswoman Dina Tyler. But since the announcement of the task force, two ACC supervision officers have been working with the LRPD's violent crimes team every day.

Ricky Hampton, the Memphis rapper known as Finese2Tymes who was performing during the shooting, was arrested the day after the shooting in Birmingham, Ala., on charges relating to a shooting outside a club in Forrest City. Hampton's bodyguard, Kentrell Dominique "Dirt" Gwynn, was later also arrested on the potential charges of providing a firearm to a convicted felon, providing armed security to a convicted person and conspiracy. Federal officials have said that evidence ties a gun Gwynn possessed to ammunition used in the Little Rock club shooting.

The push to crack down on parolees and probationers in the wake of a high-profile crime is not new for Arkansas. In 2013, Darrell Dennis, a black parolee with a long history of violations, killed a white teenager named Forrest Abrams. Media reports portrayed a parole system in disarray. The state Board of Corrections greatly tightened parole rules in response. By the end of 2013, Arkansas's prison population grew by nearly 18 percent, making it the fastest growing prison population in the country. The pace has slowed, but since then Arkansas has remained at, or near, the top of states with the fastest growing prison populations in the country.

A major criminal justice reform bill, Act 423, came out of the legislative session this year. It introduces swift and certain sanctions on parolees and probationers who violate the terms of their supervision or commit nonviolent, nonsexual misdemeanors: They will be sent to an ACC facility for 45-90 days, where they will receive treatment, rather than back to prison. The new policy takes effect Oct. 1.

Stodola has been casting blame on the parole system for the city's rising violence since even before the Power Ultra Lounge shooting.

The mayor told a community group gathered at the Thompson Library in June that "the real issue is at the state level." He said the state government was enamored with "counting [prison] beds" and encouraged people to call their state legislators to change that.

"There's an inordinate number of people who are paroled to Pulaski County. They like to hide in the shadows of the big buildings. If you overlay where they say they live and you look at where our criminal incidents are occurring — where our violent crimes are occurring — it's almost hand-in-glove," Stodola told the Times later. "It's putting an inordinate amount of pressure on the community and on the police and ultimately on us to have to respond to those issues."

Tyler said the ACC has to balance its role, making sure to not repeat the same mistake of locking up parole violators on small charges while working with city officials to go after those committing felonies.

"I think we've got the right balance," she said of ACC's and the city's joint efforts. "What we don't want is a knee-jerk reaction where we just scoop up way too many people. We want to be smart about who we send back because there's only so much room."

"We have to realize 90 percent of them are coming home," Tyler said. "You can't lock up everyone forever."

Another fact that's often overlooked: Arkansas's parole and probation officers now handle 125 cases on average, far above recommended levels. The Council of State Governments' Justice Center, a nonprofit that helped shape the new criminal justice reform bill, recommended that the state hire 100 new supervision officers, but Governor Hutchinson's budget did not provide any new money for them. The governor's spokesman Davis said there wasn't room for the new positions in a tight budget.

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