LITTLE ROCK — Earlier this year, the state awarded the family of a slain Little Rock man $1 million after the Arkansas Claims Commission determined the state Division of Youth Services was liable for releasing his teenage killer from a youth lockup against staff recommendations.
Future victims of similar crimes or their families won’t have the same recourse as a result of legislative action just weeks after the award. A new law gives immunity from such claims to the agency that oversees troubled youths in state custody.
The Legislature in April passed House Bill 1878, now Act 1478, which stripped the Claims Commission of "jurisdiction over claims against the Division of Youth Services of the Department of Human Services for acts committed by juveniles" after their release.
State Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, sponsor of the bill, said last week that the change puts DYS in the same position as the state Department of Correction, which was granted immunity from claims in 2011.
The state has sovereign immunity from civil lawsuits, so the Claims Commission has been the only avenue for those seeking redress for damages stemming from state liability. The panel hears claims against the state for such things as property damage, personal injury, breach of contracts and refunds.
Last November, the five-member panel concluded DYS was liable in the June 2009 slaying of Maurice "Beau" Clark, 67, of Little Rock, who was shot and killed during a home invasion by 16-year-old Antonio Terry, who had been released from a juvenile lockup two months earlier despite objections.
During a June 2010 hearing to determine if Terry should be tried as an adult, Pulaski County Circuit Judge Herb Wright chastised DYS, saying the agency had failed the youth by releasing him prematurely. Later in 2010, Terry pleaded guilty to first-degree murder and aggravated robbery and was sentenced to 65 years in prison.
The Claims Commission voted to award $1.5 million to Clark’s family. The General Assembly reduced the award to $1 million during this year’s legislative session, then just weeks later passed Wilkins’ bill making DYS immune from claims.
The measure passed 25-7 in the Senate and 92-1 in the House.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, who voted against the bill, said last week Act 1478 takes accountability from DYS.
"When you look at the law that was passed … there is no method that a crime victim could even have a claim against the state in an instance where the agency didn’t follow its policies and procedures," Sanders said. "I opposed the measure … and thought it was bad because you have to have at various levels accountability, and what that law did was remove a key provision of accountability from the agency."
David Williams, the Clark family’s attorney, said Act 1478 "denies citizens an opportunity for justice."
"The Claims Commission was created by the Legislature to decide whether or not there should be some compensation for people that were harmed as a result of governmental actions, conduct and decisions," Williams said. "So now, you have the Legislature reversing itself because of one case and saying ‘alright, we’re just going to deny any citizen’s right to a remedy whenever we make a really grossly negligent decision to let some dangerous person loose and he kills someone.’"
Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research, said the law is not clear whether claims against DYS can be filed after Aug. 16 in cases where the alleged damages occurred prior to the effective date of the law.
The question could be important in another case involving a death that occurred after a DYS decision to release a youth from juvenile detention.
After his release last year, 15-year-old Bobby Moore Jr. was shot and killed by then-Little Rock Police Officer Josh Hastings, who responded to a suspicious persons call at a west Little Rock apartment complex. Hastings was fired from the police department before his first trial on a manslaughter charge, which ended in a hung jury this summer. He is to be retried later this year.
Moore’s family has retained state Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, as its attorney.
Walker, the only House member to vote against Act 1478, had little to say about his clients’ plans.
"I’m trying to wait for the criminal matter (Hastings trial) to play out," he said, adding that he planned to look at whether Moore was receiving the appropriate education while in juvenile detention and whether he was released prematurely.
According to a report on Moore’s 2011 mental evaluation obtained by the Arkansas News Bureau, the youth claimed he heard voices that told him to hurt himself and others. The evaluation, conducted at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, said the teenager was at risk for future legal trouble given his gang involvement and other problems.
DHS spokeswoman Amy Webb said last week DYS has developed and implemented a number of new policies and procedures in the past few years intended to make sure youths are not released prematurely or without proper authority.
"Previously, all releases went to a certain level and our folks signed off on them," Webb said. "Now, they go to the director of the Division of Youth Services, and ultimately the director has the final sign off on all releases."
Any objections or questions raised about the possible release of a juvenile is flagged, and that information is presented to the chief of DYS, she said.
"The juvenile may still be released, but what the director will do is look through the whole file, see what the kid’s progress has been, what the concerns are and ask more questions maybe, if he still has some questions," Webb said.
Former state Sen. Tracy Steele of Little Rock, who becomes the new DYS director Monday, said he supports Act 1478 and approves of the new policies.
"I think the buck should stop somewhere, and I think the director should have the final say on that," Steele said last week. "I certainly feel that once you have done everything up the chain of command, making sure the treatment has been done, when you get to that point, then I think there should be someone (at the top) who makes that decision."
The more input on those decisions, the better, he said.