Tuesday, February 21, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Reforming probation

The state legislature could pass a bill as early as this week that will protect people on probation in district courts from being sexually exploited by their probation officers.

In the last several months, probation officers in Cabot and Ward have allegedly pressured women under their authority to exchange sexual favors for good probation reports.

State law does not specifically prohibit probation officers from engaging in sex with probationers in the way it does law-enforcement officers, judges and prison guards and others who have custody of inmates and prisoners. That shouldn’t mean probation officers are free to have sex with people who have been ordered by the court to meet with them regularly.

That’s worse than inappropriate. Lonoke County Sheriff John Staley, state Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) and state Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) have teamed up to close the loophole. Lonoke County Prosecutor Chuck Graham has also advocated changing the law.

Williams and Farrer last week told The Leader’s John Hofheimer that their colleagues at the Capitol support their plan put forward in House Bill 1453 titled, “Prohibiting Sexual Conduct Between Probation or Parole Officer and a Person Being Supervised on Probation, Parole or Other Court-ordered Reason.”

The most recent accusations of sexual abuse by a probation officer involve Mark Brooke, who is alleged to have rendezvoused with three women under his supervision while working as a probation officer for Ward District Court.

Brooke is the son of Ward Mayor Art Brooke and is also a part-time pastor. The arrest has raised issues about nepotism. The mayor transferred his son to the city’s street department after a few days’ of paid leave following the arrest.

Ward District Judge Clint McGue immediately fired the younger Brooke as a probation officer, but the judge has no authority to intervene in the transfer.

No father should have to fire his son. Mark Brooke should do the right thing and resign from his city job. Residents are angry about the allegations, and he may be welcome to return to work after his court case is complete if he is found innocent.

Much of the alleged salaciousness is said to have taken place during working hours, all the more reason to end his employment with the city.

The case against him appears solid. The sheriff heard from two women who say they had been propositioned by Brooke.

The first woman to come forward claims she had sex with him several times in exchange for good probation reports and reduced community service.

The second woman claimed she also had sex with him for community-service credit. She alleges that Brooke told her he had other women arrested who made allegations against him. Investigators have documented that he took one of the women to a motel in North Little Rock to engage in sexual activity.

Then an undercover sheriff’s deputy — posing as a recently convicted probationer — conducted a sting operation, the likes of which we hope to never have to report on again.

The undercover deputy told Brooke she was a stripper, and the trap was set.

The mayor, before the arrest of his son, had said he will not run for re-election. The longtime public servant deserves to end his career focusing on Ward’s precipitous growth and the natural challenges posed by its population boom.

The mayor, and the public, would be served well by the departure of his progeny.

Ward should learn from Cabot’s response from a similar scandal.

Last spring, State Police arrested Jeffery Everetts of Batesville, a contracted probation officer who worked for Cabot District Court, for felony third-degree attempted sexual assault against a woman in his oversight.

Everetts’ company’s city contract was terminated, and Cabot hired a new agency to provide probation services.

Mark Brooke should be considered lucky to have so far avoided felony charges. If additional charges are filed against him in Pulaski County, where the alleged abuse took place, they very well could be felonies.

Let’s hope the proposed legislation will call for more serious charges in similar cases in the future.

Everetts’ trial was scheduled to start this week in Lonoke County Circuit Court, but it has been pushed back. Mark Brooke is set to have a plea and arraignment hearing on March 20 in Lonoke County Circuit Court. That was also previously rescheduled.

The scandals have damaged the public’s trust in the district courts’ authority and integrity.