Editor’s Note: The following guest op-ed is written by State Rep. David J. Sanders (R-Little Rock). Sanders was a vocal critic of the recently passed prison reform bill adopted by the 88th General Assembly. He can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.
One of the listed accomplishments of the 88th General Assembly is the passage of prison reform legislation, but I fear, no matter how well intended, the law will exacerbate a major weakness in the state’s criminal justice system: parole.
Ill-equipped and undermanned, Arkansas’ parole system has enabled violent criminals to return to the streets, often unabated, where they continue to commit violent crimes.
A small working group of state officials and the Pew Center on the States developed comprehensive prison reform legislation, now Act 570, to flatten the eversteepening cost curve associated with incarcerating criminals in our state prisons. The law relaxes sentences and sanctions for socalled low-level, nonviolent drug offenders. Instead of locking them up, the state would move more of these criminals out of prison beds, placing them on parole.
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. 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.
I retold stories in which Arkansas parolees had committed violent crimes.
Late last year, Memphis school teacher Maggie Wright died, allegedly killed by an Arkansas parolee who was on active supervision by the Arkansas Department of Community Correction, the state agency charged with overseeing parole. Cedric Burns, the man charged with Wright’s murder, should never have been let out of prison.
In fact, when he was charged with capital murder, prosecutors recounted his five previous felony convictions, including aggravated robbery and burglary. He now awaits trial.
Virginia Brown, a mother of 13, was shot in the head while cooking dinner for her family in her east Little Rock residence in 2009.
Brown’s assailant, Ed Harris, later convicted of first-degree murder, was another Arkansas parolee who had violated the conditions of his parole by not checking in with his parole officer. Harris, not unlike other repeat offenders, had been arrested 18 other times and convicted of numerous other crimes.
Parole officers have told me that cases like these are not the exception, but often the rule because numerous parolees slip through the cracks in the system and are frequently unaccounted for.
The law’s ardent supporters point out that it calls for swift and certain sanctions for the criminal who violates the terms of his or her parole. They add that the new law provides DCC with other options, such as home detentionand electronic monitoring.
But before those who are required to oversee these criminals can act swiftly and with certainty, they must have the personnel and leadership to develop and apply meaningful sanctions.
What has been offered as the fix doesn’t look promising.
During the lead up to the vote, a concerned DCC employee shared with me a document with the words “DCC: Parole/Probation Violation Sanctioning Grid” across the top. The grid spells out a number of “sanctionable offenses” for parole violations on one side and a number of sanctions on the other.
The grid allows for a parolee who fails multiple drug tests, repeatedly fails to pay parole fees, doesn’t report, absconds (avoiding arrest or prosecution), or is arrested or convicted of new misdemeanor or felony charges – all violations of parole – to get away with virtual slaps on the wrist. Many of the new sanctions, which really aren’t sanctions at all, include written warnings, increased community service hours, increased meetings with drug counselors or meetings with other DCC personnel.
Along with members of law enforcement, judges and many of our state’s prosecutors are concerned by the inherent weakness in the department’s efforts to fix parole because it allows parolees to drift back into a life of crime. Increasingly, lawmakers are beginning to raise questions, too. After all, shouldn’t protecting the public be our highest priority?