Prison board chief cites 'poor judgement' in parolee's release


LITTLE ROCK — Poor decisions, not parole policies, contributed to the release of a parolee accused of murdering a teenager while free despite multiple arrests, the head of the state prison board said Friday after the panel reviewed a report on the case.

For more than a month, legislators have been demanding an explanation for how Darrell Dennis, released from prison in 2008, remained on the streets after repeated felony arrests without having his parole revoked.

He was last released from the Pulaski County jail on May 8 after parole officials decided not to revoke his parole pending a mental evaluation. Less than 48 hours later, 18-year-old Forrest Abrams of Fayetteville was found dead at a Little Rock intersection. On May 22, Dennis was arrested and charged in the slaying. His parole was revoked June 5.

On Monday, the Department of Correction released findings from its investigation into the case.

The report, done by Mark Colbert, compliance administrator and attorney for board, cited a number of factors, including jail overcrowding, but found no wrongdoing by employees.

Among the findings in the report were that two parole officers with the Department of Community Correction had the authority to reject recommendations from case workers that Dennis be held for a revocation hearing. The report said the two officers used the information presented to them to follow DCC policy and had no way of knowing that Dennis would later be charged with first-degree murder.

An assistant director also “exercised his legitimate authority and discretion” within DCC to approve the release, the report said.

The report did suggest that one assistant manager could have followed through on a suggestion to require Dennis to wear electronic monitoring and another probably should have participated in an interview with Dennis before signing a form granting his release.

The report also found that felony drug charges pending against Dennis and his awaiting a court-ordered mental health evaluation delayed revocation of his parole.

“By raising this issue of mental competency to stand trial in circuit court, (Dennis) was able to delay a parole revocation hearing for an unusually long time,” the report said. “The Parole Board should explore alternative ways to address the mental competency issue for its revocation cases.”

Last month, the state Board of Corrections approved a series of new mandates to improve the disciplining and monitoring of parolees accused of new crimes or parole violations. One of the new mandates prohibits parole officers from letting jailed parolees back on the street if a mental health evaluation is pending.

The report also found that overcrowding in the Pulaski County jail was a factor in Dennis’ release.

Corrections Board Chairman Benny Magness said after Monday’s meeting that the report showed that poor decisions were responsible for the release of Dennis, not the state’s parole and probation policies.

“There were some decisions made … that didn’t have a lot to do with policy as much as it had to do with bad judgment, bad decisions,” Magness said. “So to try and make sure that those decisions are not made again in the future, we’ve closed some holes. Anytime you give the authority to somebody to decide who goes to prison and who doesn’t, there’s going to be a mistake made.”

Along with releasing the report, the board also unanimously named Sheila Sharp, a 15-year-veteran of the state prison system, director of the state Department of Community Corrections.

Sharp had been interim director since early July when David Eberhard, the agency’s embattled former director, retired amid the review of DCC’s handling of the Dennis case.

She said Monday that none of the findings in the report were surprising.

“I think we’ve already put a lot of things in place to address the issues that were in this report,” Sharp said after the meeting.

The board’s findings are expected to be discussed during a joint meeting of several legislative committees next Monday at the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center in Pine Bluff.

Along with the Department of Correction investigation, the state police is examining the circumstances of Dennis’ case, and Gov. Mike Beebe ordered an internal DCC investigation. A number of legislative committees also have questioned Sharp and other agency officials during a series of meetings at the state Capitol.