LITTLE ROCK — An evaluation of the state’s entire justice system may be in order, the interim director of the state Department of Community Correction told legislators Thursday, as officials work through investigations into the agency’s handling of a parolee accused of murdering a teenager while free despite multiple arrests.
DCC continued to take criticism Thursday from lawmakers demanding an explanation for how parolee Darrell Dennis remained on the streets despite repeated arrests without having his parole provoked after being released on parole in 2008.
Following his release five years ago 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 48 hours later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville 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 His parole was revoked on June 5.
State police and the state prison board are examining the circumstances of Dennis’ case, Gov. Mike Beebe has ordered an internal DCC investigation and Thursday’s meeting of the Joint Performance Review Committee was latest of several at which lawmakers have grilled correction officials about the case.
Interim DCC Director Sheila Sharp, a state prison system veteran who took over the agency that oversees parolees and probationers in July, told committee members Thursday, "I believe there needs to be processes changed in our entire criminal justice system, from my initial look."
"I support things I know my agency did," Sharp said. "I think when we finally can get you the information you will have a better picture, but Darrell Dennis had charges that were never processed against him. He was let out of jail because we don’t have enough jail beds in this state to hold every one that I guess we need to hold sometimes … . We have communication issues that need to be fixed, with all of law enforcement."
During the meeting, Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, said he met with some parole and probation officers this week and learned many of them are fearful of some of the parolees or probationers in their care, and that some even keep a list of the more dangerous parolees and "stay up at night" because of fear and worry.
"I was also told the Little Rock office had flagged Darrell Dennis a long time ago and he was a problem," Sanders told DCC officials. "If somebody’s a danger, it seems to me you have a response to the public to do whatever it takes to get that guy off the streets. I don’t see that in this case at all. Why not?"
Sharp said the list Sanders was referring to was kept by one parole officer. The agency does not compile such a list, she said.
The DCC interim director told the panel that she has shuffled DCC personnel and taken other steps since taking over the agency that oversees parolees and those on probation in July.
Sharp said the Little Rock area probation and parole office does not have enough staff and has a turnover rate of nearly 50 percent. When fully staffed, she said, there are 60 officers in the Little Rock office, which monitors about 35 percent of the 24,000 parolees in the state.
She said she has begun filling 10 vacant parole and probation officer positions and has divided the Little Rock office between parole and probation to help reduce caseloads and allow officers to be more specialized. One area manager was demoted, she said.
"Most of the things I found had to do with the stress of the job, the overabundance of cases and the inability with the number of hours in the day to simply do everything that they knew needs to be done," Sharp said. "Ultimately, as director I think (the responsibility) would fall on me if I did not address issues to make sure that all of our folks have the resources they need to do their job."