State Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, took umbrage at one quotation in last week’s column about problems in Arkansas’ parole system. Sanders, a former Arkansas News Bureau columnist, has been the legislative point person in investigating those problems.
The quotation was from then-Sen. Jim Luker, D-Wynne, who at a 2009 legislative hearing on other problems related to the state Department of Correction said that lawmakers "need to do a little soul-searching" as to their own culpability in the problems.
The quote was used to enforce a point that legislators are frequently quick to "get tough on crime" but hesitant to deal with the finances needed to do so.
"Luker made the problem worse," Sanders wrote in an e-mail. "He’s hardly the one who should be offering criticism."
I asked Sanders to explain, and he provided a citation for an op ed piece he wrote for Talk Business Arkansas in April 2011. In it he warned that Act 570 of 2011 would "exacerbate a major weakness in the state’s criminal justice system — parole. His predictions about the consequences were remarkably close to what actually has happened.
Act 570, whose lead sponsor was Jim Luker, was a 164-page bill known as the Public Safety Improvement Act that resulted from a group of state officials working with the Pew Center on the States to deal with the escalating cost of putting criminals in our state prisons. In effect, it provided for lesser sentences for some nonviolent offenses, especially drug crimes, and made some nonviolent offenders eligible for parole earlier. It also reduced punishment for some parolees who failed to report to a parole officer or who failed a drug test. The idea was to ease prison overcrowding.
"During the floor debate on the bill, I warned my colleagues that their actions could carry grave consequences — potentially putting public safety at risk — unless our parole system was improved," Sanders wrote in the op ed piece. "I explained that our parole system is riddled with problems and couldn’t handle the increased caseload that will result from the new inmates being released and placed on the parole logs; many parole officers currently carry unmanageable caseloads of 120 to 130 parolees."
Sanders, a House member at the time, pointed out then that the parole system, which he called ill-equipped and undermanned, had already enabled many violent criminals to return to the streets and commit more violent crimes. Whether Act 570 is directly responsible, that situation has only worsened. The murder of a Fayetteville teen-ager, Forrest Adams, in May, allegedly by an 8-time parole absconder, Darrell Dennis, prompted the latest round of legislative reviews.
Act 570 passed the Senate 35-0 and the House 79-14, with two representatives not voting and four others, including Sanders, voting present. It was signed into law by Gov. Mike Beebe on March 22, 2011.
At the time Luker said the bill’s advocates worked hard to avoid weakening of public safety but added that the law could be modified in later sessions if needed.
And that’s exactly what has happened. An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette investigation recently found that at least 1,129 parolees over the last five years had stopped reporting to parole officers, yet were released from supervision by the Community Correction Department. To be fair, that situation can be blamed in large part on a 2007 departmental policy change that was intended to be temporary but wound up being permanent.
Sanders filed several bills during this year’s legislative session in an effort to shore up the parole system, and a couple of them became law. One, he contends, could have prevented a convicted rapist who now faces new rape charges from being released from jail.
Act 1029, which became effective last week, requires the state Parole Board to issue a warrant for the arrest of a parolee who has committed a violent or sexual felony while on parole.
The other is Act 485, which includes sexual offenses and other serious felonies as offenses not eligible for mandatory parole.
A third Sanders bill, which would have forced more dramatic changes, failed to get out of the Senate Judiciary Committee and died when the Legislature adjourned. It would have required that any person on parole who violates the terms of his or her parole by committing a particular subsequent felony offense would have to serve the entire original sentence.
Unfortunately, the Legislature did little to correct the original problem of the parole system — i.e., its being ill-equipped and undermanned. As I pointed out last week, the Parole Board’s general appropriation for 2013-14 was increased by only $13,000, of which almost $5,000 was earmarked for a raise for the Parole Board chairman, bringing his salary to $103,030.
The Legislature should look closely at staffing available for carrying out parole laws and policies — how many officers we have, how well they’re paid, what kind of caseload they handle, how well they’re qualified, etc. The acting director of the Department of Community Correction recently told a legislative committee that the turnover among parole officers in the Little Rock office had been nearly 50 percent over the past year. Each officer averages 100 cases.
The agency has only three hearing officers for the entire state. Is that enough? Maybe so, if we don’t try to enforce the law.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.