Last Thursday, the Joint Performance Review Committee met to discuss Arkansas’s parole crisis. I am, quite frankly, ashamed to say this is an issue that has received little attention from us here at The Arkansas Project — but that’s about to change. What I heard at the JPR meeting on Thursday fired me up.
Bilenda Harris-Ritter, a local attorney, was one of several to testify about accommodating victims in the criminal justice process. Harris-Ritter, a former commissioner on the California Board of Parole Hearings, scolded high-ranking members of the Department of Community Corrections (DCC), some of whom sat just behind her:
I am here to address concern for public safety and why I believe it is not a part of the mission for the Board of Corrections or DCC.
When Act 570 was jammed through the legislature in 2011, it was, in my opinion, the single most damaging blow to public safety in ages. At the time it was being considered, there was a lot of rhetoric about all the stakeholders in the system being involved to put the legislation together. But the stakeholders with the most on the line were not included — the crime victims.
Crime victims are the first casualties that result from a failure to take public safety seriously. They pay the first cost. Too often it is a cost that cannot easily have a dollar amount put on it so it is just ignored.
The reality is that no one wants to remember the victims — it makes people uncomfortable. If we use a spreadsheet, we can quantify how much money we can save by not building prisons. If we manipulate the definition of recidivism, we can talk about how low the number of repeat crimes is. How much is lost when a productive member of the community is murdered? What if he brought in the income and now his wife and children need public assistance? What if people are afraid to go to dinner or the movies because of armed robberies? How much revenue is lost by those businesses? What about the cost of therapy for someone who is afraid to be in the house where the murder occurred?
The Board of Corrections, parole board and DCC need to understand that the convicted felons are not your clients. You don’t work for them. They don’t pay your salaries and expenses. Your clients are actually the general public — the people you are sworn to protect. The people you have failed to protect and who have suffered greatly as a result of your failure.
If you’re unfamiliar with the failures Harris-Ritter references, you should read up on Darrell Dennis, who was a subject of discussion throughout the JPR meeting. Dennis was arrested in May for at least the fourteenth time since he was released on parole in 2008. This time, it cost eighteen-year-old Forrest Abrams his life. Unfortunately, Harris-Ritter said the Dennis case is far from an anomaly.
What does Harris-Ritter suggest as a remedy? “People with a different philosophy need to be in charge,” Harris-Ritter told lawmakers. And she mentioned one specific place DCC begin their housecleaning:
The DCC spokesperson [Rhonda Sharp] is extraordinarily offensive to crime victims. She signs her emails with a quote from Judy Clarke, a lawyer who is rabidly anti-death penalty. A woman who has represented the most vile murderers in our country from the Unabomber, to Susan Smith (the young mother who drowned her own children in a pond in South Carolina), to the man who put a gun to the head of Representative Gabrielle Giffords and pulled the trigger after murdering a 6 year old girl and a federal judge. She now represents the Boston Marathon Bomber. And what is that quote?
“Criminals want to forget about the worst day of their lives — they don’t want to be remembered for committing horrific crimes that destroy the lives of innocent people.”
They want us to forget about what they did to destroy the lives of innocent people, those who love them, those who knew them, those who live in their communities. Those people will never feel safe again. I know, because it happened to my family.
In case you missed that: the DCC spokesperson is signing her official, taxpayer-funded emails with a quote from an attorney who has represented the Gabby Giffords shooter and is now representing the Boston Marathon Bomber. (Click here to see a sample email.) This is sincerely outrageous to the victims of crimes in Arkansas, and Harris-Ritter agrees:
Those who love the innocent victims do not have a choice about forgetting the worst day of their lives. They cannot forget. Most of the time, the victims did nothing to bring it on and could do nothing to stop it — unlike the criminals. I bring this up so everyone will understand how offensive that philosophy is to those who are the victims or who buried the victims.
Harris-Ritter would know: her parents were brutally murdered in Stone County, Arkansas in 1981.
And it’s not just the Clarke quote that shows such blatant disrespect for crime victims — it’s the culture of unprofessionalism that Harris-Ritter says consumes DCC. In May, Harris-Ritter was contacted by a police officer trying to help a victim who wanted to speak against her attacker at their parole hearing, but she was too fearful to appear in person. So, the officer contacted the parole board and asked if the victim could submit a statement via email. He was told by parole board staff that they do not give out their email addresses. “Really? It’s on the business cards but victims can’t have it?,” Harris-Ritter asked lawmakers on Thursday. I guess one possible explanation is that the parole board and DCC don’t want victims to see their offensive email signatures.
Until proven guilty, accused criminals should largely enjoy the same rights as the rest of us — that’s the way our system was designed. But this catch-and-release policy being implemented by DCC is appalling and it endangers the rights — and even the lives — of law-abiding Arkansans. Unfortunately, it is perhaps too easy to see the monetary savings of letting more criminals out of prison and much more difficult to quantify the costs that crimes have on individuals, their families and the community at large. However, making public safety a low priority endangers all Arkansas citizens and the current philosophy at the DCC is doing exactly that.
The front page of the DCC website says their mission is “to enhance public safety by encouraging a crime-free lifestyle and providing cost-effective, evidence-based programs in the supervision and treatment of adult offenders.” Perhaps it’s past time we put a little more emphasis on “evidence-based programs” and “public safety,” and gain a better understanding of what “cost-effective” means.
Harris-Ritter concluded her testimony this way:
As you look at how to change the problems I ask you not to forget that this is only being investigated because a reporter was able to obtain internal documents from DCC. Until the first story ran no changes were being made.
Without the media access to documents we would not be here listening to the descriptions of changes only now being made. No one in the leadership at The Board of Corrections or DCC took any action because of the crimes that were being committed by Parolees. Sadly, the Darrell Dennis case is not unique. The leadership is tainted by a philosophy that is out of synch with the mission of public safety.
Crime victims have earned a right to be included at the table in resolving these problems- they have, after all, paid the most for the failures of the system.
You can watch Harris-Ritter’s testimony here, courtesy of Rep. Mark Lowery:
(If you’d like to monitor further developments on DCC reform, stay tuned to TheArkansasProject.com, but also join “End The Arkansas Parole Crisis” on Facebook.)