The interim director of the Department of Community Correction told lawmakers Monday she hopes to have recommendations for potential changes within the system later this summer.
Sheila Sharp also said she has a meeting set with managers of the parole and probation office in the Little Rock region and is considering splitting parole and probation duties between officers, rather than having them do both.
“It’s a matter of dividing workload,” she said, adding that the Little Rock area monitors the most people on parole and probation and that is where many of the procedural issues have occurred.
The DCC has been under scrutiny since the May the arrest of Darrell Dennis, a parolee accused of committing murder while free after multiple arrests.
The state Board of Corrections is examining what happened, Gov. Mike Beebe has ordered an internal DCC investigation and the Arkansas State Police is conducting an administrative investigation into what happened and how another breakdown might be avoided.
Last week, the Legislative Joint Performance Review Committee spent about three hours discussing the issue and will continue its discussions at a meeting on Aug. 1.
On Monday, the Legislative Council’s Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions Subcommittee was briefed on the DCC’s transitional housing and technical violators programs and lawmakers quizzed Sharp on what she is doing to make sure the state’s probation and parole officers do their jobs professionally and correctly.
“My role right now is fact finding … certainly listening to all the concerns, getting to know all the issues within the organization,” Sharp said. “I expect to have some recommendations within the next couple of weeks to the (state Board of Corrections).
Sharp said one issue of concern is the nearly 50 percent turnover of parole and probation officers, particular in the Little Rock region.
“That has got to be something that has got to be addressed immediately,” she said, adding that in Little Rock the agency lost nearly 30 of its 60 officers last year.
Sharp also said the department has collected more than $ 1 million in its Best Practices Fund, which was created by the Legislature in 2011, and that she is looking at ways to spend that money to improve the system.
Under Act 570 of 2011, the law designed to reform parole guidelines, reduce the number of low-risk offenders in the state prison system and ease prison overcrowding, offenders under supervision for probation or parole are assessed a $35 monthly fee, of which $10 goes into the Best Practices Fund.
The director can use those funds to establish and maintain programs and services designed to reduce the risk of repeat offense or recidivism, or improve or enhance services. The funds can go to offender treatments, operational enhancements to improve monitoring or other services.
During the meeting, Sens. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, and Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, both said that morale issues within the department are statewide and not just limited to the Little Rock area.
Dan Roberts, deputy director of parole/probation, for DCC, said he was aware of that. Sharp noted that the majority of those on parole or probation are in the Little Rock region.
Sharp said she plans to have an open and frank discussion with the manager and assistant managers of the Little Rock region.
She said she wants to find ways to improve morale and reduce workload.
Williams asked Sharp for copies of the last 10 employee exit interviews, saying he had been receiving phone calls from employees about problems within the department. Sharp said she would provide the information to Williams.
After being released on parole in 2008 after serving time for aggravated robbery, Dennis was arrested more than two dozen times, including arrests for absconding and several felonies, without having his parole revoked.
He was released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8 after parole officers decided not to ask that his parole be revoked, telling him he would be sent to a technical violator’s center in Malvern. Less than two days later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found shot to death at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked on June 5.