Intense media coverage of the murder of real estate agent Beverly Carter last week is causing a stir in the state legislature. A meeting Monday between lawmakers and parole officials turned contentious.
It didn’t take long for the tone and atmosphere in the Judiciary committee to turn hostile, as legislators let their frustrations known to Parole Board members. Representative Sue Scott of Rogers told Parole Board member Abraham Carpenter to get ready for an emotionally-tinged string of remarks.
“I hope I don’t have to jump out of my chair [Carpenter chuckles] and absolutely almost have a heart attack asking these questions or making these comments. But I’m going to tell you something sir...” said Scott.
Carpenter had just testified to the committee for a little over ten minutes about the parole process. He answered a barrage of questions about his qualifications and review procedures. Carpenter said a few tragedies out of a parole and probation system with over 50,000 people is a good track record. Scott found his comments troubling, contending the recent murder of a real estate agent in Scott could have been prevented.
Scott: “And when you sit down with that dear family, if you do sit down with them, I hope you have more compassion in your voice than what you have brought to this meeting this afternoon. I hope you can look them in the eyes and you can say ‘we will find a way to make this better’ and if you cannot you send someone else to talk to them, please sir. Don’t you agree?”
Carpenter: “No ma’am I do not agree. I…”
Scott: “I’m not surprised.”
Representative John Walker of Little Rock did not put much pressure on the parole board. Though he noted he has sued them on occasion through his law firm as a citizen. Walker said the parole system on-the-whole has worked well with the means provided to them by the legislature. He suggested the murder of Beverly Carter may have been unpreventable.
“My sympathy goes out to the family but it goes out to people who get killed every day wherever they are and we cannot keep people from being murdered as long as we have this kind of society,” said Walker.
Walker went on to caution legislators to not let emotion over a recent high-profile case cloud their ability to reason and pursue rational thought. Fellow Democrat Darrin Williams sympathized with Walker’s perspective.
“I want to apologize to each member of the parole board because this does feel like an inquisition and that is not my intention in being here today. You all are dedicated public servants and I appreciate the work that you do,” said Williams.
One thing that is clear from the hearing is that legislators such as Jeremy Hutchinson will be ready in January with a slate of reforms intended to toughen the parole system. Hutchinson wants to broaden the definition of violent crimes to include crimes like burglary. He argued psychological harm has nearly the same effect as physical violence and that the mere possibility that violence could occur is close enough to violence to warrant the same treatment.
Senator David Sanders took issue with Parole Board members characterizing the number of crimes committed by parolees as relatively small. Sanders read aloud a list of over 15 parolees alleged to have committed murder or rape since this April.
Parole Board Member Dennis Young cautioned lawmakers about what tougher parole standards could mean for an already backlogged prison system.
“We’re all going to make mistakes. Unfortunately there was a heinous crime made on this most recent one as have others been, just as Senator Sander stated. But by golly, if we don’t let some of these people out go back and explain it to all the tax payers that we don’t need one new prison, we need 20 new prisons,” said Young.
Hutchinson and others also indicated they wanted to "professionalize" the parole board by requiring a level expertise in fields such as psychology or criminal justice. Parole Board members are currently appointed by Governors and confirmed by the state Senate.
Walker asked his colleagues whether they thought the legislature too should have education requirements, noting some in the room did not graduate from college.