Problems with Arkansas’ parole system go back several years, at least to 2009 when an Arkansas parolee shot and killed four police officers in a Washington state coffee shop before being killed in a shootout with law enforcement officers.
In that case Maurice Clemmons, serving a 108-year sentence for robbery and other crimes, had been released in 2000 after his sentence was commuted to 47 years by then-Gov. Mike Huckabee, making him immediately eligible for parole.
Less than a year later Clemmons was back in prison on another robbery charge, but that case was dropped due to various problems, including a delay in serving the arrest warrant. Later he moved to Washington, which accepted his supervision.
He couldn’t stay out of trouble there either, and officials in the two states were trying to get the necessary paperwork together for revocation when the murders occurred.
As a result, Washington stopped accepting parolees under an interstate agreement with Arkansas. But the hands of Washington officials weren’t exactly clean either, and in Arkansas the blame was placed mostly on Huckabee for commuting Clemmons’ sentence. The case was quickly forgotten.
However, earlier in 2009 the Arkansas Legislature slashed $6.6 million from the Department of Correction’s budget. That caused a delay in opening a new prison, and subsequently the state Board of Corrections approved early parole hearings for 648 inmates to ease prison crowding.
That was in addition to 349 prisoners given early release in April.
The following spring the Department of Correction granted early release (up to 90 days) to 695 inmates. In August 2011 an early release list included 750 inmates.
In the summer of 2009 a series of incidents in the Arkansas prison system called attention to overcrowding and staffing problems. Among those were the escapes of two murderers, the fatal shooting of a parolee at a prison checkpoint and an inmate who nearly died after being left lying in his own feces over a weekend.
Legislators were concerned enough to hold some hearings and ask prison officials to explain why they allowed such things to happen. But then-Sen. Jim Luker, D-Wynne, injected a bit of common sense into the proceedings, saying that the lawmakers needed to be more honest about their own culpability in the problems.
He said prison officials had asked unsuccessfully for more money for the system, which holds more than 16,000 inmates in 21 facilities. Maybe legislators "need to do a little soul-searching" of their own, Luker said.
Like all of us, lawmakers are quick to "get tough on crime," not so quick to pay the costs. It’s good politics to call for locking the criminals up, not so good to ask for more money to pay for new jails and prisons to keep them there.
That’s where the latest controversy comes in — at the tail-end of the process, when a convicted criminal has served time in prison and we try to ease him back into society as a better citizen. Parole is different from probation, which comes as part of a court order in place of imprisonment for part or all of a sentence.
Parole can be granted only by the state Parole Board after a person has served part of a sentence. When that can be considered depends on the crime(s) for which the person was convicted. Parole is used by the state as an inducement for good behavior.
Arkansas’ parole system is overburdened by almost annual early releases and a lack of adequate staffing.
That no doubt was the motive behind a 2007 memorandum which has allowed parolees to serve out their parole terms even after failing to live up to those terms. The idea was to clear the decks of some old parole records. The problem was that the temporary policy became permanent for reasons that no one has yet been able to explain.
That apparently allowed Darrell Dennis, an eight-time parole absconder, to go free despite more than two dozen arrests after his release on parole in 2008. Incredibly, his parole was never revoked, and two days after Dennis’ release from the Pulaski County jail, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found shot to death at a Little Rock intersection. Dennis was charged with kidnaping and murdering him.
Nothing gets the attention of our public officials like a murder case involving a prison inmate who shouldn’t have been free.
Since then various legislative committees have held hearings on problems in the system, and rightfully so. Various policies and procedures are under review and attack, and various officials are being blamed. Some heads have rolled. A State Police investigation is under way into what happened.
Incompetence could explain in part why our parole system isn’t working well.
But Luker’s suggestion that legislators do a little soul-searching has gone unheeded. Again during this year’s legislative session more work was dumped on the Parole Board by tightening the standards for parole. And yet the department’s operations appropriation was increased by barely $13,000 to $1,953,408. Almost $5,000 of that increase will go to the Parole Board chairman.
While there are seven full-time Parole Board members, the number of revocation hearing judges remains at three.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.