LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers on Thursday questioned the effectiveness of a state correction’s program in which some parolees who violate terms of their release are diverted to treatment and training in lieu being sent back to prison.
The state Department of Community Correction’s technical violators program, which opened in 2007, became an integral part of an overall plan in 2011 to ease prison overcrowding and keep the most hardened criminals behind bars.
"Right now it ain’t working," Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, said during a legislative committee meeting Thursday, pointing to recent instances where parolees were arrested for violent crimes, including murder, just after completing the program.
In particular, Sanders referred to a example last week in his district. A Faulkner County parolee was charged in the death of a Greenbrier man just days after the parolee was released from a technical violators center.
Howard Dallas Short II, 38, was charged with first-degree murder in the August slaying of Michael Wayne Robb, 68, at Robb’s Greenbrier home.
Short, who was on parole after serving prison time for forgery, was admitted to the technical violators program in March after he confessed to stealing checks from Robb in January. He was released from the program on Aug. 1 and Robb was found dead Aug. 6. Short was charged Sept. 11 in Faulkner County Circuit Court.
Short "went through the intense behavioral modification, your counselors had a really good feel for him, he exited (the program) and he went" and allegedly killed Robb, Sanders told DCC officials Thursday during a meeting of the Joint Performance Review Committee.
DCC has been under fire since May with the arrest of Darrell Dennis, a parolee accused of committing murder while free despite multiple felony arrests.
Following an arrest in Pulaski County, Dennis was let go and instructed to report to his parole officer in 24 hours so he could be taken to a technical violators center in Malvern. However, Dennis never met with his parole officer and less than 48 hours later was charged with murder in the death of a Fayetteville teenager.
Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation, and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided. In August, the state Board of Corrections released findings from its investigation, which concluded that a number of factors contributed to the breakdown of procedures in Dennis’ case, including jail overcrowding, but found no wrongdoing by employees.
During Thursday’s committee meeting, Sanders also mentioned Ronald Britton of Beebe, who was convicted of capital murder earlier this year in the 2010 slaying of Michelle Asher of Greenbrier.
Britton, who was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility parole, had a long criminal history, including aggravated assault and first-degree battery, was on parole at the time of Asher’s slaying and had been released from the technical violators program.
"I think, to this point, the center has not been used the way it should be," Sanders said, reminding lawmakers that up until recently the DCC kept its recidivism rates low because it did not list those parolees who had violated their sentences and were sentenced to the technical violators program.
The senator also chastised Kathy Brown, director of the technical violators program, for recently using the word "hope" when discussing the program and its desired outcomes.
"This is not a partisan issue, this is one of right and wrong, public safety and where we’re putting the top priority," Sanders said. "Hope doesn’t work. We need something more substantial, and I will tell you when I look at substantial information that has come from this program it leaves a lot to be desired and I have very little hope that it will do what you all intend for it to do."
Sheila Sharp, who has headed DCC for about a month, said she understood Sanders’ concerns and that she was working to improve the program.
"I think it is a good program," Sharp said. "You know these center supervisors don’t have control over who is sent to them. They take what they get and try to do the best they can."
The DCC director said she agreed "that we probably need to take a hard look at who we’re sending," noting the state Board of Corrections in July approved a new policy requiring parolees arrested on new felonies and sexual misdemeanors to be referred to the state Parole Board for a hearing.
"Once they make a determination, we don’t have a choice," she said.
Assistant DCC Director Dina Tyler told committee members Thursday that, at Sander’s request, she had compiled information on parolees who completed the technical violators program and later were arrested and returned to DCC or sent to prison. She said 47.3 percent returned to custody in 2008, 46.3 percent in 2009 and 43 percent in 2010.
Tyler said she had not yet completed compiling information on the types of crimes those parolees returned to custody after completing the program had committed.
DCC oversees three technical violator centers in the state — a 300-bed facility for men in Malvern, a 96-bed facility for men in Texarkana and a 75-bed facility for women in Pine Bluff.