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Lawmakers to take up parole system

New policies designed to improve the process for deciding when to release parolees from custody are a step in the right direction but other major changes might be needed, some lawmakers say.

A legislative committee is scheduled to meet this week to review current state parole policies against the backdrop of three investigations into the state Department of Community Correction’s handling of Darrell Dennis, a 47-year-old parolee accused of committing murder while free despite multiple felony arrests.

The Joint Performance Review Committee is scheduled to meet Thursday.

Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, suspects “wholesale changes” may be needed to correct what he sees as an obviously flaw in the system.

“I think we’re going to look at this case specifically, we’re going to talk about the broader issue. Broader problems exist in parole,” Sanders said last week.

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 officials decided not to revoke his parole, telling him he would be sent to a technical violator’s center in Malvern. Less than two days later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams was found dead at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked on June 5.

Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation of its handling of Dennis’ case. The state Board of Corrections also is examining what happened, and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided.

“It’s not a criminal investigation,” Beebe said about the state police’s involvement. “There’s no allegations of criminality, but the state police is pretty good and their investigative arm is really good at being able to objectively review with other agencies.”

The governor also said he supports the interest by the Joint Performance Review Committee.

“They have a duty too,” he said, adding that wherever the investigation goes, it must be objective.

On July 1, DCC Director David Eberhard resigned and the next day Sheila Sharp, a long-time deputy director of the state Department of Correction, was named interim director.

Over the past few weeks, the state prison board passed a series of mandates aimed at improving the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. Some of the mandates actually prohibit parolees from be released if they are awaiting a court-ordered competency hearing, consistently fail to report for meetings or hearings, and if they are charged with felonies, violence or sex-related misdemeanors.

“They’ve already taken a number of different steps to try to systematically change some of the things that led to the Dennis situation,” Beebe said.

Benny Magness, the board chairman, said last week that the department’s investigation is ongoing and he does not know when it will be completed.

“There are other matters we want to review, but most of what the investigation is dealing is the Darrell Dennis,” Magness said. “A review of other practices of the parole office, Department of Community Correction and a full audit of the files are not complete,” he said.

Sanders, a critic of the state’s parole system for several years, said the new mandates passed by the board show that there is a problem.

“I think what you have for the first time is a very succinct acknowledgment … that there are major issues with the parole system in Arkansas, and I think they are trying to figure out how to fix the problem. I applaud their efforts,” he said. “I’ve always maintained that there’s a philosophical problem, that there is a leadership problem and their is a policy problem.”

Sanders said he believes those problems all predate the Legislature’s passage of Act 570 in 2010, a package of state prison reforms intended to ease overcrowding and slow rising costs. Act 570 provides for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenders and mostly drug-related crimes. The law also makes some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier, with electronic monitoring as a condition of early release in some cases.

The Legislature passed a number of measures this year to tighten Act 570.

Dennis’ 2008 parole was not affected by the law passed two years later.

Sanders said a comprehensive review of the parole system is in order to make sure the right policies are in place to keep hardened criminals behind bars.

“This has been something that has been festering for quite some time and we’ve known all along that parole doesn’t work,” he said, adding that parolees should know that “when you leave jail … if you don’t keep your nose clean you’re going back and you’re not going to get a second, third, fourth or fifth chance.”

Ronnie Brown, president of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, said the Dennis episode and the overall state parole system will be discussed at length at the group’s summer conference this week in Fort Smith.

“This is a hot topic, and I know some sheriffs have different feelings about the laws that were passed,” Brown said. “Now we think that people deserve second chances through the parole system, but also I think the sheriffs think that there are limits and this may be one of those that exceeded the limits and went way, way too far out of bounds.”

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