The state Board of Corrections voted today to recommend that the state Parole Board move away from a policy that’s been the driving force behind the massive surge in Arkansas’s prison population.
After Darrell Dennis, a serial parole absconder with a long criminal record, murdered a white teenager in 2013, the Board of Corrections responded to the uproar that followed by requiring parole revocation hearings for all parolees merely charged — not convicted — of any felony or violent or sex-related misdemeanor, a policy possibly unique among states with parole.
As a result, Arkansas’s prison population grew seven times faster than any other in the country in 2013. Official state tallies aren’t yet available for 2014, but Arkansas’s growth is once again expected to be among the highest in the country.
Today, the Board of Corrections recommended that parolees charged with nonviolent felonies and certain misdemeanors merely be held for three days, during which time the Parole Board could decide whether to hold a revocation hearing; if the Board decided not to hold a hearing, the parolee would be set free, perhaps with electronic monitoring. The Parole Board will meet on Aug. 27 to ratify the proposed change, according to Dina Tyler a spokesperson for the Board of Corrections.
The practical effect could be significant.
In the fiscal year that ended June 30, the Parole Board revoked 6,104 parolees. Of those, only 28 percent were convicted of new charges, according to Tyler. Often, prosecutors drop or nol pros the charges, Tyler said. But what kind of justice is that?
The Arkansas Legislative Council today approved $7.4 million to go toward the third phase of construction on the Ester Unit in Pine Bluff. That money will eventually allow the Arkansas Department of Correction to add 200 beds, but that won’t come until well into next year. Phase two of Ester construction is scheduled to be completed Jan. 1, 2016, and it will add another 172.
But that hardly puts a dent in the 2,687 prisoners under ADC jurisdiction held in county jails today. The total ADC population count today is 19,035. Twenty years ago, amid the war on drugs and a significantly higher crime rate, the population was only 9,051.
Today’s recommended policy change could help stem the tide, though. The Board of Corrections will ask the Parole Board to make the change retroactive, which could immediately alleviate some of the county jail backup, Tyler said.
“This is something that will help that we can do carefully and still protect the public,” Tyler said.
Parolees charged with violent or sexual felonies will continue to be held for revocation hearings as required by 2013’s Act 1029, sponsored by Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock).