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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Parole Corrections

Any state’s parole system must establish a difficult balance. You want to give those who have served their time a second chance to be productive citizens. By the same token, you want to keep the truly dangerous offenders behind bars for the safety of the public. For anyone out on parole, there are rules and requirements to follow. Those who violate the rules are subject to sanctions, including going back to prison. With large numbers of parolees to supervise, parole officials are given a certain amount of discretion to interpret the severity of parole violations.

However, it became clear here in Arkansas that some parole cases were being mismanaged, beyond the limits of good judgment or even common sense. The highest-profile case in point involved a parolee named Darrell Dennis, a man with a long history of parole violations. Unfortunately, he had managed to slip through the cracks or game the system and repeatedly found himself out of prison. Earlier this year, just two days after the last time he was released from jail, he was charged with a kidnapping and murder in Little Rock, and now awaits trial.

While changes in procedure and personnel began at the Department of Community Correction, I wanted a more thorough, objective review of the parole system, particularly in Central Arkansas. So I asked the Arkansas State Police to conduct an administrative investigation. It is a rare step for the ASP, which usually focuses solely on criminal investigations. While no criminal activity was found at the DCC, the exhaustive report detailed the systemic problems we had already begun to address within our parole structure.

Many of the officials involved in the Dennis case no longer have their jobs. Parolees who repeatedly fail to report to a parole officer are jailed, and parolees awaiting revocation hearings are now required to be jailed until the hearing. Additionally, more parolees who remain free will be subject to electronic monitoring.

These changes will improve public safety, but they are also causing renewed crowding in our prisons and jails. Our backup of inmates sitting in county jails while waiting for Department of Correction beds to open has swelled from 500 to well above 2,000. A significant majority of these people have recently had their paroles revoked.

While we expect this rise in our jail backup numbers to level off, it is clear that more money will be needed to open more DOC beds and pay counties for holding State inmates. Combined, we estimate that meeting those two obligations will require at least $14 million in additional funds for Fiscal Year 2015. That funding will be part of my proposed balanced budget that I will present to the General Assembly in January.

Previously, the State responded to problems in our parole system in an overly lax manner. Our current response has now pushed us back toward overcrowded prisons and jails. The Board of Correction is continuing to fine-tune policies to find that ever-needed balance between protecting public safety and best managing our detention facilities. It is work that never ends, but it is an ongoing effort that has seen important improvements in recent months.