Wednesday, October 22, 2014

TOP STORY >> Is a life worth a million dollars?

Leader editor-in-chief

Almost half the parolees in Arkansas who serve a fraction of their sentences commit more crimes soon after they’re freed.

About two dozen parolees have been charged with murder this year, according to the Department of Correction. Victims’ families know their loved ones would be alive today if parolees like James Michael Davis and Arron Lewis had stayed in prison longer.

More than 22,400 parolees are out on the streets in Arkansas right now, often serving as little as one-sixth of their sentence.

Even Dina Tyler, the longtime prison spokeswoman, finds that frightening.

“That’s a scary thought,” she said after we asked her to look up the number of parolees in the state.

“No one is watching them as they’re wandering off from Supermax,” she said, referring to the high-security Varner Unit.

They’re on their own once they go free. The recidivism rate is 40 percent — almost 9,000 parolees will eventually return to prison. Some of them will be petty criminals all their lives, while others will turn into murderers and rapists and armed robbers.

Tyler told us 23 parolees have been charged with murder this year, including Lewis, 33, who is accused of killing a realtor last month, and Davis, 39, who killed a couple near Cabot last year.

Davis was recently found guilty and given two life sentences without the possibility of parole. Tyler said he won’t hurt anyone outside prison again.

Those 23 accused murderers may represent a small number of parolees, but that’s two murders a month, hundreds of victims every decade.

How much is a life worth? Sure, taxes would go up if Arkansas spent $100 million more on prisons, but are those victims’ lives not worth at least $1 million each?

Earlier this year, one parolee in Little Rock allegedly killed a man during a holdup 32 hours after the thug was released from prison.

Over the weekend, a Little Rock man was killed in a home invasion in the Hillcrest neighborhood.

Wesley Wooley III was charged Tuesday for that murder. He was placed on probation just last month for drugs, drug paraphernalia, fleeing and weapons possession.

Let’s do the math: Tyler says, for certain crimes, a prisoner will serve one third of his sentence. But, under the prison emergency act to ease overcrowding, that sentence often becomes one half of one third, or one-sixth of the original sentence.

In 2010, Davis, of Conway was sentenced to 96 months in state prison but served just 10 months for residential burglary, theft of property, forgery, possession of a firearm by a felon and criminal mischief.

Davis served his sentence concurrently, and, with good behavior, an eight-year sentence dropped to less than a year.

A few months later, Charles Smith and Tracey Mills invited Davis to live at their triplex on Charles Drive off North Stagecoach Road on Hwy. 38 between Cabot and Ward.

Lewis, who was from Gravel Ridge, is back in prison, accused of killing Beverly Carter of Scott. He had been convicted of crimes in northwest Arkansas, Kansas City and Utah as far back as 1998. He was only 17 when he was convicted of first-degree robbery.

He was also convicted of interstate commerce of a stolen vehicle in 2003, aggravated assault on an officer in 2007, deactivating an anti-theft device in 2008, along with three counts of theft.

Lewis was paroled in August 2013, 13 months before he allegedly met Carter at a house she was showing in Scott. Her body was discovered in a shallow grave near Cabot on Sept. 30, a few days after her disappearance.

Lonoke County Prosecuting Attorney Chuck Graham says, “Almost everyone we deal with is on parole. People are surprised when they find out how little time these parolees serve in prison.

“You can’t put anyone in prison in Arkansas without letting someone out,” Graham said. “It’s a revolving door. Obviously, they’ll let people out who will cause trouble.

“We’re limited with only so many jail beds,” he continued.

Graham also advocates more training for parolees before they leave prison so they can find jobs. That will take more money, of course.

The big talkers in the legislature who say our parole system is broken should figure out how much it would cost to keep more prisoners behind bars and train them for a better future when they get out.

The parole board this week voted to require a quorum before it can consider parole applications. It’s a start, but Arkansas is a long way from having a system that protects the innocent.

Just ask the families of Beverly Carter, Charles Smith, Tracey Mills and others.