Members of the Arkansas Parole Board voted Monday to raise the bar for review of inmates whose parole requests have been denied.
Under current regulations, an inmate can request a reconsideration of any parole decision made by the board within 60 days. If a parole request has been denied by the board, only one board member need approve the request for the inmate's case to return to the board for reconsideration.
Under the changes approved by board members Monday, a majority of a quorum must approve the request to re-examine an inmate's case. According to the board's policy manual, a quorum consists of no fewer than four board members.
Monday's special meeting, called outside of the board's normal monthly meeting schedule, came in the wake of a contentious Oct. 6 appearance by board members before members of the Legislature's House and Senate judiciary committees. Parole Board Chairman John Felts and other members were grilled by legislators after the Sept. 25 abduction and murder of North Little Rock real estate agent Beverly Carter, 50.
Arron Lewis, whom the board released on parole in August 2013 after he had served a part of his sentence for theft of property, was arrested Sept. 29 and charged with Carter's abduction and murder Sept. 30. A public defender entered a plea of innocent on his behalf, and he is awaiting trial.
Despite the timing, both Felts and board spokesman Solomon Graves said Monday's vote on parole reconsideration was not necessarily tied to Lewis' arrest. Lewis' parole was not one granted under reconsideration after initial denial.
"The Board continuously reviews policies and procedures to determine areas that need adjustment," Graves said in an email Monday afternoon. "This change came out of that ongoing review and a belief that the current language was unclear."
"Whether it was a parole denial, or a choice to place that person in a program, we felt like it was important to bring this back to a majority of the board agreeing to bring that case back up," Felts said.
Before the amended language becomes permanent, the board will entertain a public comment period of at least 30 days, as well as hold a public hearing, and later respond to all comments entered into the official state record, as required by the Arkansas Administrative Procedures Act. The change will either lapse or become permanent within 120 days, depending on how the board acts, Graves said.
Felts said he doubted the change, if it becomes permanent, will greatly affect the overall prison population in the state. According to the board's annual report, the board conducted about 7,000 parole hearings (which involve interviews with inmates, victims and others) and about 4,500 screenings (which involve reviews of administrative case files) between July 2013 and June 2014. Of that number, about 8,700 inmates were approved for parole, and about 1,200 were denied for at least one year.
Of the approximately 1,200 inmates who were denied parole during fiscal year 2014, more than 400 had been convicted of sex offenses. More than 200 others had been convicted of battery, another 183 had been convicted of murder and another 115 were convicted of "other violent" crimes.
The report does not include data on the number of inmates who were initially denied parole but later granted parole after a re-examination. Graves was not able to immediately provide the data Monday.
Under current commission language, "Only one reconsideration request will generally be considered by the Board for a particular Board action."
Jean Thrash, director of the Arkansas chapter of Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants, an international prison-change advocacy organization, said she didn't feel the additional requirements for reconsideration before the parole board would unfairly affect inmates or their families.
"For the most part, the Arkansas Parole Board has the backing of the majority of the families," Thrash said. "Any family is disappointed if parole isn't granted, but for the most part, [the board does] listen to families."
"I just see it as another set of eyes," Thrash said. "I see it as quite reasonable."
Metro on 10/21/2014