An investigation into the Arkansas Department of Community Correction found “systemic problems” with its parole system. But Gov. Mike Beebe and other officials say steps are already being taken to address people who violate parole, but aren’t being picked up and returned to prison.
The extensive report was prepared by Arkansas State Police, after attention about the case of eight-time absconder Darrell Dennis. Authorities say he had stopped reporting to his parole officer and should have been back in prison when he was arrested in May and charged with committing a kidnapping and murder in Little Rock.
The report did not find any criminal activity on the part of officials involved in his case.
Governor Beebe released the report during a press conference Monday and said policy changes have resulted in many absconders being sent back to state prisons or backed up in county jails waiting for bed space to become available.
“There’s no excuse,” Beebe said, “to keep bad guys that are dangerous to public safety out of jail. Public safety comes first.”
But that, he noted, will take additional money from the state.
“We all know we’ve got to pay for it. It’s not free. The days when they used to run prisons back in the ‘50s at no cost to the taxpayer have long since gone away.”
Paying for the changes will have to be considered when the Arkansas Legislature meets for its 2014 fiscal session.
“There’s going to have to be a systemic influx of money to address these policy changes and new issues come February. There’s just no way around it. You can’t have 2,200 more folks backed up in county jails needing more beds without creating a financial responsibility on the part of the state. That has to be addressed,” Beebe said.
Officials say they also need additional money to hire more parole officers who can adequately track parolees.
“Our average caseload statewide is about 118 per officer. National average would have it at around 60. That lets you know just how short we are at supervision,” said Sheila Sharp, interim director of the Department of Community Correction.
Part of the solution to address prisons that are at capacity, Sharp said, is to find ways to let inmates who are not considered dangerous, be allowed to leave prison early using tracking devices like ankle bracelets and having more people serve house arrest. New policies are expanding the use of such GPS devices.
“The system is ready to go today. We have approximately 300 units now that we can use. We have about half of them in use, but I believe over the next few weeks, with some proposed policy changes, we may use them a lot more.”
Beebe said he and correction officials will be making suggestions and proposals to pay for the measures, but said, “ultimately it’s the legislature that decides to fund or not fund.”